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SPOTLIGHT: Best Children's Books Set in World War II

Sunday, November 08, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Best Children’s Novels Set in World War II

My new novel THE BEAST’S GARDEN is a retelling of the Grimm fairy tale ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, set in Nazi Germany.

I have been fascinated by World War II ever since I was a child, and read every book I could find set during those tumultuous years as I grew up. 

I thought I’d make up a list of my favourite children’s books set in World War II for you. 

The first book I ever read with that setting was The Diary Of Anne Frank. It sent a seismic shock through my life when I first read it at the age of twelve. Her voice was so honest and true, and her ending so very tragic. I found it devastating, and it began my lifelong fascination with the Second World War.

I am David by Anne Holm was published in 1963, and written by a Danish author. It’s a haunting tale about a 12 year old’s escape from a concentration camp and his struggles to find safety and a home. I have read it again several times, and it never fails to shock and move me. 

The Silver Sword by Ian Serrallier, published in the late 1950s, is another utterly gripping and harrowing children’s book set during World War II. 
On a cold winter’s night in Warsaw, three children watch in horror as the Nazis arrest their mother. Left alone to fend for themselves, in a city that has been bombed into ruins, the three children struggle to stay alive. Eventually they hear their father is alive and has escaped to Switzerland. They set out to find him, keeping as their talisman an old letter opener that they call the silver sword. 

The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico is a small exquisite book about the friendship between a crippled young man, a girl, and a snow goose. It was first published in 1940 as a short story in The Saturday Evening Post, then he expanded it to create a short novella which was first published on April 7, 1941. It was my introduction to the extraordinary story of the Dunkirk evacuation, and has lingered in my imagination ever since. Youc an read a longer review here.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr is inspired by the author’s own childhood, growing up in Nazi Berlin. It tells the story of a little girl who does not even realise that she and her family are Jewish until the pogroms begin. Her father – an outspoken writer – has to flee in the middle of the night, and Anna and her mother and brother must try to follow as best they can. I remember lying awake for weeks afterwards, imagining what I would pack … where I would hide … would I remember a can opener? Which one of my beloved soft animals would I take? 

Good night, Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian did not have as strong an impact upon my imagination as many of the other books in my list – perhaps because it is set in England and so the danger did not seem so acute. It tells the story of a skinny Cockney boy sent away from London because of the Blitz. He is reluctantly taken in by a grumpy old man in a small country village, but the two end up being each other’s saviours. As a child, I mainly remembered the scene in which the boy, Willie, is discovered to have been sewn into his undies by his mother … and his bed-wetting …. But I read the book again as an adult, and found it a beautiful and subtle book.

I first read Dawn Of Fear by Susan Cooper because I loved her Dark is Rising fantasy series so much, rather than because of its WW2 setting. However, it lingered for a long time in my memory … I think because it felt so real. It tells the story of a mob of boys in blitzed London, their games and feuds, and the sudden shock of tragedy that changes everything. An unjustly ignored book, I think. 

As I grew older, I read Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, an utterly brilliant story about the Danish Resistance and how they worked to save nearly all of the country’s Jewish population after the German occupation in 1943. This is a book I return to again and again – it is so simple, and yet so powerful. In my estimation, it is one of the best books for children about World War II.

In my teens, I also read Briar Rose and The Devil’s Arithmetic, both by Jane Yolen. The first is an extraordinary reimagining of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale ‘Briar Rose’, moving between the modern day story of a Holocaust survivor’s granddaughter and her grandmother’s harrowing escape from the Chelmno concentration camp. The second is a timeslip adventure, taking a modern-day girl – who finds her family’s Jewish traditions embarrassing – back to a Polish village in the 1940s. When the Nazi soldiers come and start rounding up the Jewish residents, only Hannah has any idea of what lies in store … but no-one will believe her. Utterly compelling and heart-wrenching.

As I grew up, I never stopped reading WW2 fiction intended for the young … here are a few favourites by contemporary authors:

A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper

This is the first in a trilogy about an extraordinary family, the FitzOsbornes, who live in a tumbledown castle in the tiny island kingdom of Montmaray. The FitzOsbornes are minor royalty, and their home has a strategic position in the ocean between Germany and Great Britain. Beginning in 1936, the trilogy charts the lives of the family as war breaks out in Europe. It is fresh, charming, surprising, and will make you smile one moment and weep the next. You can read more about Michelle Cooper and the Montmaray 
Journals here

I also really love those books of Eva Ibbotson set during this period. My favourite is A Song for Summer, which tells the story of an unusual English girl who takes a job as a housekeeper in a progressive Austrian boarding school in the late 1930s. As always, the minor characters are extremely eccentric and delightful, but there are darker shadows here as the Third Reich spreads its tentacles over Europe. I’d also recommend The Morning Gift and The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson, set in the same period and sharing her delicious blend of sparkling humour, acute insight, and heart-warming romance.

The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips by Michael Morpurgo is one of my daughter’s all-time favourite books. I first read it to her when she was about eight, and she has read it again many times since (Michael Morpurgo is her favourite author). It’s the story of a girl and her cat and their small English village, and the impact of the war upon their lives. I am not ashamed to say I cry at the end every single time. We also love Waiting for Anya and  An Elephant in the Garden by the same author.

One of the most brilliant, clever, and heart-rending novels about WW2 that I have ever read is Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. It was only published in 2012, and so is a recent addition to the oeuvre – and absolutely one of the best.   It tells the story of a young British female spy whose plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Arrested and held prisoner and tortured for information, she tells her story on small scraps of paper … yet is she telling the truth? This is one of those books that is terribly hard to summarise in a blurb, in the fear of giving away the story’s unexpected plot twist … and yet you want to say to everyone: READ  IT!

Elizabeth Wein’s follow-up Rose Under Fire is almost as good … which means it is absolutely soul-shakingly brilliant.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne has been widely celebrated and has sold a motza. I did not like it much when I first read it – I felt it struck a note of false naivety, plus I thought it was too similar in key ways to Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic, which I absolutely loved. However, I have re-read the book a few times since then and have been won over. In a way, its simplicity and naivety make it a key entry point for teenagers who have never read any Holocaust fiction … and its ending (very similar to the ending of Jane Yolen’s novel) at least does not try to escape the awful reality of Auschwitz. 
I just hope that readers of John Boyne’s work will go on and read Anne Frank, and Anne Holm, and Ian Serallier, and Jane Yolen, and those other writers of extraordinary WW2 children’s fiction. 

And one final note: I cannot talk about wonderful WW2 children’s’ fiction without mentioning my own sister Belinda Murrell’s brilliant and heart-wrenching novel The Forgotten Pearl, set in Darwin and Sydney in the 1940s.


You may also like to read my blog about The Diary of Anne Frank, and how reading it changed my life. 


INTERVIEW: Michelle Cooper, author of 'The Montmaray Journals'

Friday, June 07, 2013

Today I interview one of Australia's most talented writers for young adults, Michelle Cooper, the author of the charming trilogy known as 'The Montmaray Journals'. 

Michelle was born in Sydney, Australia but went to school in Fiji and rural New South Wales. She worked as a speech and language pathologist for fifteen years. 

Her second novel, A Brief History of Montmaray, was awarded the Ethel Turner Prize for Young People's Literature in the NSW Premier's Literary Awards and was shortlisted for the Gold Inky, Australia's teenage choice book award. In America, where it published by Alfred A. Knopf Books , it was named in the American Library Association's Best Books for Young Adults list. 

The FitzOsbornes in Exile, the second book in The Montmaray Journals trilogy, was shortlisted for the Ethel Turner Prize  and the Western Australian Premier's Young Adult Book Award, longlisted for the Gold Inky Teenage Choice Award, and named a Notable Book for Older Readers by the Children's Book Council of Australia. In the US, it was listed in the Best Teen Books of 2011 by Kirkus Reviews and in the American Library Association's 2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults.

The FitzOsbornes at War, the final book in The Montmaray Journals trilogy, was published in Australia and New Zealand in April 2012 and in North America in October 2012

Here Michelle is kind enough to answer my usual questions: 

Are you a daydreamer too?

Of course! At school, I’d finish assigned tasks as quickly as possible, so that I could spend the rest of the lesson gazing out the window and making up stories in my head. (I was an inconspicuous child, so teachers didn’t usually notice what I was doing.) I still drift off into imagined worlds when I’m doing tedious chores like grocery shopping or cleaning the bathroom, although now I call it ‘planning a new book’ rather than ‘daydreaming’.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Almost always – ever since I realised that the books I loved reading had actually been created by a person called an ‘author’. I dreamed that one day I’d have a book of my own published, although I didn’t truly believe that would ever happen. Except now it has! I feel very fortunate.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live,
what do you like to do?

I was born in Sydney, but my family moved to Fiji when I was young, and after that we lived in various Australian country towns. I changed schools frequently and often felt lonely and unhappy, so I escaped into the world of books. It all worked out well in the end, though, because if I hadn’t been an avid reader then, I wouldn’t have grown up to be a writer. I live in the inner west of Sydney now and I still love reading books.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?

The first book in the Montmaray Journals trilogy, ‘A Brief History of Montmaray’, began with a picture that appeared in my mind of a teenage girl sitting on the wall of a castle, writing in her diary. I decided she was an impoverished princess and suddenly all sorts of other characters – pirates, ghosts, aviators, sea monsters, Nazis on a quest to find the Holy Grail –started clamouring to join her story. 

The following books, ‘The FitzOsbornes in Exile’ and ‘The FitzOsbornes at War’, were inspired to a large extent by real historical events – the political turmoil of 1930s Europe, and then the cataclysm of the Second World War.

How extensively do you plan your novels?

I had to do a lot of planning for the Montmaray books, because I wanted my fictional characters to witness actual historical events and interact with real people from the time. For ‘The FitzOsbornes at War’, I spent about eight months researching life in wartime Europe and thinking about the roles my characters would play, then trying to fit all of this information into a cohesive, compelling narrative.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?

I’ve noticed that since I started writing novels, my dreams have tended to follow a standard narrative structure, with an initial complication, escalating tension and some sort of resolution. Sometimes, even deep within a nightmare, my dream self will think, ‘This would make a great book! I just need to think of a happier ending!’ I did recently write a short story based on a dream I had, but it’s a very weird story so I haven’t let anyone read it yet.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?

Yes, I uncovered some intriguing stories about the Second World War while doing research for ‘The FitzOsbornes at War’. For instance, I already knew that the Duke of Windsor, who gave up the British throne to marry Wallis Simpson, had Fascist sympathies. However, I was fascinated to learn of a Nazi plot to lure him into Fascist Spain, where he could ‘hold himself in readiness’ until the Nazis conquered Britain. The idea was that the Duke would then resume the throne as Hitler’s puppet king and appoint a suitably Fascist Prime Minister, such as Oswald Mosley. 

That same year, there was a spy scandal at the American Embassy, involving a glamorous White Russian with links to Wallis Simpson, an American cypher clerk and a virulently anti-Semitic British MP. This was all rather embarrassing for the American Ambassador, Joseph Kennedy (yes, one of those Kennedys), who’d had no idea that top-secret communications from President Roosevelt were being stolen from the Embassy and handed over to the Nazis. This wasn’t very serendipitous for Mr Kennedy (or the Duke of Windsor or Oswald Mosley), but it was very helpful for my plot.

Where do you write, and when?

I write at my desktop computer, in a cramped corner of my bedroom, with my research notes spread out on the bed behind me. As for when I write, I’d like to pretend I work from nine to five, with a brief break for lunch, with absolutely no messing about and wasting time on the internet. I don’t think anyone would believe me if I said that, though.

What is your favourite part of writing?

The times when I’m completely engrossed in the story – when I’m chortling at the funny dialogue, or sniffling because my narrator’s feeling sad, when I glance over at the clock and realise I’ve been caught up in my invented world for hours. I also love the part when the writing is done and the book is out in the world. I’ve had such lovely emails from readers and read some wonderful reviews. It’s such a thrill to realise the characters in my head have escaped and set up camp in other people’s heads.

What do you do when you get blocked?

Fall into a pit of despair. Become convinced I will never finish writing this book. Moan about this to my friends, who remind me that I said exactly the same thing when I was writing my previous book. If a publishing deadline is looming, I usually manage to climb out of my Despair Pit fairly quickly and get back to work.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

I’m inspired by lots of things in real life – reading newspapers, eavesdropping on conversations at the bus stop, looking at old buildings or at ancient artefacts in museums and wondering about their histories. I’m also inspired by reading books, fiction and non-fiction. I don’t tend to find myself at a loss for new ideas – the difficulty is working out which of these many ideas can be turned into a viable story. 

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?

No, unfortunately I don’t. Do you know any effective ones?

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

Anne Tyler, Sumner Locke Elliott, Sarah Waters, Margaret Atwood, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Stella Gibbons, Zoë Heller, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Rumer Godden, Peter Cameron . . . Wait, I can only choose ten? This is so unfair!

(I love Rumer Godden too, particularly The Greengage Summer)

What do you consider to be good writing?

I like reading about characters who have something interesting to say, who act in plausible but unexpected ways, who make me want to follow them on their journey – whatever form that might take – because I absolutely need to know what will happen to them. It’s more difficult to describe ‘good writing’ at paragraph, sentence and word level, because it depends so much on the narrator’s voice and what the author is trying to achieve. Sometimes ‘good writing’ is beautifully ornate, and sometimes it’s stark and confronting. But if I keep getting thrown out of the story because I’m constantly questioning the author’s word choices or sentence structures, then I tend to classify that as ‘bad writing’.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?

Anyone can be a writer. All you need is a pencil and a piece of paper (or a computer, if you want to get all hi-tech about it) and a burning desire to turn your ideas into words. Being a published writer is more difficult, especially if you want to be published by a large traditional publishing company, but there are lots of self-publishing options these days. My advice to aspiring authors is to read as widely and thoughtfully as possible; to write about what fascinates you, rather than what you think will sell; and to be willing to accept editorial advice and write draft after draft until you get it right. Be persistent and stubborn, but don’t forget to take pleasure in the process of writing. Your finished manuscript probably won’t make you rich or famous, but there are other, less tangible, rewards for writers.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing a novel for teenagers about science and history, set in Sydney. My last novel had a lot of sad bits in it, so this one is full of jokes.

BOOK REVIEW: The Montmaray Journals by Michelle Cooper

Monday, June 03, 2013

: The Montmaray Journals:
1) A Brief History of Montmaray
2) The FitzOsbornes in Exile
3) The FitzOsbornes At war

Author: Michelle Cooper

Publisher: Random House

Age Group & Genre: Historical Fiction for Young Adults

The Blurbs:
Book 1: A Brief History of Montmaray
Sophie FitzOsborne lives in a crumbling castle in the tiny island kingdom of Montmaray with her eccentric and impoverished royal family. When she receives a journal for her sixteenth birthday, Sophie decides to chronicle day-to-day life on the island. But this is 1936, and the news that trickles in from the mainland reveals a world on the brink of war. The politics of Europe seem far away from their remote island—until two German officers land a boat on Montmaray. And then suddenly politics become very personal indeed.

A Brief History of Montmaray is a heart-stopping tale of loyalty, love, and loss, and of fighting to hold on to home when the world is exploding all around you

Book 2: The FitzOsbornes in Exile 
Forced to leave their island kingdom, Sophie FitzOsborne and her eccentric family take shelter in England. Sophie's dreams of making her debut in shimmering ballgowns are finally coming true, but how can she enjoy her new life when they have all lost so much?

Aunt Charlotte is ruthless in her quest to see Sophie and Veronica married off by the end of the Season, Toby is as charming and lazy as ever, Henry is driving her governess to the brink of madness, and the battle of wills between Simon and Veronica continues. Can Sophie keep her family together, when everything seems to be falling apart?

An enticing glimpse into high society, the cut and thrust of politics as nations scramble to avert world war, and the hidden depths of a family in exile, struggling to find their place in the world. 

Book 3: The FitzOsbornes at War 
Michelle Cooper completes her heart-stealing epic drama of history and romance with The FitzOsbornes at War. 

Sophie FitzOsborne and the royal family of Montmaray escaped their remote island home when the Nazis attacked. But as war breaks out in England and around the world, nowhere is safe. Sophie fills her journal with tales of a life during wartime. Blackouts and the Blitz. Dancing in nightclubs with soliders on leave. And endlessly waiting for news of her brother Toby, whose plane was shot down over enemy territory.

But even as bombs rain down on London, hope springs up, and love blooms for this most endearing princess. And when the Allies begin to drive their way across Europe, the FitzOsbornes take heart—maybe, just maybe, there will be a way to liberate Montmaray as well.

What I Thought: 
I read the first book in this wonderful series in manuscript form, which is why the first edition has a quote from me on the cover. I wrote: ‘bittersweet and delectable, this book deserves to be an instant classic.’
I haven’t changed my mind. I really loved ‘A Brief History of Montmaray’, and I recently read the final two books in the series as well and loved them just as much.

The books are written as a diary kept by the teenage heroine, Sophie FitzOsborne, a princess of the royal family of Montmaray, a tiny (fictional)  kingdom in the middle of the Bay of Biscay between France and Spain. 

Sophie’s voice rings utterly true, as does the dialogue of the rest of her charming and eccentric family. 
The story begins in Montmaray, but then moves to England during the Second World War. The family’s home has been occupied by German forces, and Sophie must struggle with homesickness as well as all the vagaries of growing up in the shadow of the war. She has romantic yearnings, longs for pretty clothes, and gets caught up in political intrigue and spying, all the why trying to manage her unruly brother, sister and cousins. 

Michelle Cooper’s ‘The Montmaray Journals’ have often been compared to ‘I Capture the Castle’ by Dodie Smith, which is one of my all-time favourite young adult novels. It has the same real and vivid voice, the same sense of wistfulness, the same tender exploration of growing up and falling in love for the first time. 

However, ‘The Montmaray Journals’ have an extra edge because of the time and place of their setting – Sophie writes about the slow escalation towards war, the hope for conciliation, the rise of Fascism, and the very real immediacy of the consequences of war. These books feel real – and I could only wish that Michelle Cooper would write another three! 


Monday, December 31, 2012

This past year was the first year of The Australian Women’s Writers Challenge – a call to arms for Australians to support our women writers by reading and reviewing their books, and spreading the word about the extraordinary literary talent we have in this country.

The initiative – begun by Elizabeth Lhuede – aims to redress the gender imbalance in the way male and female writers are treated in this country. Male writers are reviewed more often and win prizes more often, even though they do not write more books than women.

I have to admit I've  always had a strong bias towards women writers – my husband will growl, ‘don’t you have any books by men?’ as he searches my many bookshelves for something to read – yet I have noticed that the major literary papers do not review the type of books I really want to read. 

So I decided to join in the AWW challenge by reviewing novels that I had read and loved on a blog which I began for that purpose. I have reviewed and interviewed both men and women, from Australia and elsewhere – and I have made an effort to read more books by Australian women writers. 

In all, I read 95 books in 2012, 26 less than in 2011.

Less than one-third of these were written by men.

Of the 63 women writers, 35 of them were Australian. All of them were utterly brilliant. If you haven’t read their novels, read them in 2013 and discover for yourself the amazing talent of writers we have in this country: 

Parallel Historical/Contemporary

1. Secrets of the Tides – Hannah Richell
A dramatic story of family secrets and lies, set in London & Devon. Hannah Richell is UK-born, but lives in Sydney so I have counted her as an Aussie. 

2. The Secret Keeper - Kate Morton 
A riveting read that moves between contemporary times and the early days of the Second World War

3. Lighthouse Bay - Kimberley Freeman
One of my favourite books of the year, this book has romance, suspense, a dastardly villain, and a cast of strong, defiant women.

4. In Falling Snow  -  Mary Rose MacColl
A fascinating look at the role of women nurses and doctors in the Second World War in France.


5. Raven’s Heart  -  Jesse Blackadder
Set in Scotland in the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, this novel is filled with unexpected twists and turns.


6. The Reasons for Marriage  -  Stephanie Laurens
7. A Lady of Expectations  -  Stephanie Laurens
8. An Unwilling Conquest  -  Stephanie Laurens
9. A Comfortable Wife  -  Stephanie Laurens
Regency romance novels that are thin on story and thick on sex – but enjoyable nonetheless. 

10. The Perfect Rake  -  Anne Gracie
11. Bride by Mistake – Anne Gracie
12. The Perfect Waltz  -  Anne Gracie
13. The Stolen Princess – Anne Gracie
14. The Perfect Kiss – Anne Gracie
15. His Captive Lady - Anne Gracie 
Sparkling Regency romances with just the right mixture of humour, pathos, intrigue and romance.


16. Sea Hearts  -  Margo Lanagan
A haunting tale of love, betrayal and selkies by one of Australia’s most extraordinary authors. 

17. Shadowfell – Juliet Marillier
The first in a romantic YA fantasy series by one of my all-time favourite authors.

18. Flame of Sevenwaters  -  Juliet Marillier
Another fabulous historical fantasy set in the otherworldly forest of Sevenwaters.

19. A Corner of White  -  Jaclyn Moriarty
A startlingly original book that moves between the parallel worlds of contemporary Oxford and the strange and magical Kingdom of Cello.


20. Poet’s Cottage – Josephine Pennicott
An intriguing murder mystery set in Tasmania, which moves between the present day and the tragic past. 

21. A Few Right Thinking Men  -  Sulari Gentill
The first in a series of murder mysteries set in 1930s.

Children’s/Young Adult

22. The Golden Door – Emily Rodda
23. The Silver Door - Emily Rodda
24. The Third Door - Emily Rodda
A new trilogy of action-packed fantasy adventure novels for 8+, by the brilliant Emily Rodda

25. The Forgotten Pearl – Belinda Murrell 
A fabulous historical novel for 10+, set during the Second World War in Darwin and Sydney.

26. The River Charm  -  Belinda Murrell
A beautiful and very moving novel that moves between contemporary times and New South Wales’ early pioneering days, drawing upon the true life story of Charlotte and Louisa Atkinson, Australia’s first female novelists and journalists (and, I proudly must admit, my sister Belinda and my ancestors)

27. Bright Angel – Isabelle Merlin
A charming romantic suspense novel for 13+ set in the South of France.

28. One Long Thread – Belinda Jeffries
A fresh and unusual coming-of-age story that moves between Australia and Tonga.

29. Moonlight & Ashes – Sophie Masson
A really brilliant retake on the well-known Cinderella story, set in a make-believe Prague.

30. The Madman of Venice – Sophie Masson
A romantic historical novel set in Venice, with lots of suspense to keep the pages turning.

31. The FitzOsbornes in Exile - Michelle Cooper


32. You’ll be Sorry When I’m Dead – Marieke Hardy

Next year I aim to read even more books by Australian Women Writers. 
What about you?

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