I spent most of my career teaching elementary-aged students with special needs. My husband is the son of Holocaust survivors, and together we raised two children. But if you ask any of my friends or colleagues to describe me in 10 words or less, they would say:
“Oh, she loves to read.”
“Always has a book in her hand..”
“She loves to talk books.”
Yes, I am a voracious reader, and there is nothing that I enjoy more than talking about books, researching books, following my favorite authors on social media, and attending author events, both in person and now virtual, during the pandemic.
My love for the written word began when I learned to read. As a child, I was an introvert, and I didn’t have many friends, so I retreated into an imaginary world of books and stories.
My favorite days in school included weekly library visits, Book Fairs, and the days that the Scholastic Book orders were given out. My dad took me to the public library every Saturday, and I felt so grown up when I graduated to the YA section downstairs—what a milestone!
As an adult, I have developed certain preferences for different genres. Because I am an educator and a parent, I have always been interested in children’s literature. I fondly remember the books which gave me so much pleasure when I was growing up, and I loved sharing these with my own children, as well as investigating the current trends and titles which excited them.
My favorite subject to teach is, of course, reading, and discussing the popular books with my middle graders was always the high point of our day. When I pursue my own “free/independent reading,” I gravitate towards contemporary fiction and historical fiction, especially World War II stories, and this will be the subject of the following essay.
As a child, my interest in the Holocaust was piqued by my sixth-grade teacher. He was a World War II veteran (this was in the 1960s) and had served in Europe. During social studies, he told us a little bit about his experiences (in an age-appropriate way, of course), which were quite different from those of my father, who had been in the Pacific.
Inspired by these stories, I sought out books set in this time period, beginning with the Diary of Anne Frank, as well as watching old movies such as Journey for Margaret, Mrs. Miniver, and the movie based on Anne Frank’s diary. Many of these old, vintage, black and white movies were broadcast on TV back before cable TV, and movie channels were available.
For the purpose of this essay, I decided to focus on the Holocaust and World War II books aimed at middle grade and young adult audiences. As you will see, some are older books that are still enjoyed and used today in the classroom, and others are more recent additions to this ever-growing trend in literature.
As a child, I remember learning about the Holocaust when I read The Diary of Anne Frank, at the age of eleven or twelve. Even then, I had very little knowledge of the devastation and horror until I was in high school.
Textbooks can only teach us so much: the stories conveyed by fiction writing and memoirs reach the audience through emotional, realistic, and vivid descriptions similar to TV or movies.
As a young adult and adult bibliophile, I pursued my interests by selecting books about this time in history. Coincidentally I married the son of survivors, and I was fortunate that they shared their experiences with me, and later, my children before they passed away.
It has been highly recommended in recent years, and in some areas, required to include Holocaust education in the curriculum. But at what age is it appropriate to share such graphic information, and through what types of materials?
The youngest learners are taught acceptance, tolerance, and diversity through picture books, games, and daily living activities. However, as a parent and educator, I believe that children in the middle grades are old enough to start learning about the Holocaust as an important historical era, and what better way to learn and understand that through the use of age-appropriate books and supplementary materials?
I’m including a list of some of my favorite children’s and young adult books: most are recent, but there are a few which I remember reading back in the 1960s and 1970s. These suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg; more books are being introduced every day, and all serve as valuable tools in teaching the lessons of this period in history.
Table of Contents
1. The Butterfly
by Patricia Polacco
This is a unique children’s book because it deals with the Holocaust in a very simple yet realistic matter. It serves as a perfect introduction to Holocaust education for young children. I found this book in a second-grade classroom library, and thus, I was introduced to this amazing author’s work.
Don’t be fooled by the fact that it is a picture book: this story deals with mature themes in a very age-appropriate way (as do all of Polacco’s works).
The illustrations and the story contribute to Patricia Polacco’s ability to weave the true story of a woman who hid Jewish families in Nazi-occupied France in such a way that young students are able to empathize with the emotions of the young daughter of this heroic woman.
The plot depicts the fear and the conditions of the time with just enough description that a young reader can grasp the enormity of the situation without being frightened by graphic details. Patricia Polacco is a master storyteller and illustrator who is able to take any period or topic, no matter how intense, and explain the unexplainable to children.
Although this book was not around when my kids were young, I had the privilege of introducing it to a fourth grade reluctant reader when helping him with a reading project. He was inspired to seek out more material on the topic after he had completed the book, and he continued to pursue his interest through the fifth grade.
by Ann Abramson
by David A. Adler
I included these two Anne Frank books together in one section because they are aimed at the same target audience. When I was young, one of my first introductions to the Holocaust and the impact it had on the Jewish population in Europe was when I read The Diary of Anne Frank in sixth grade.
However, when my daughter started asking questions about her grandmother’s experiences, I found a plethora of children’s literature available to us. When assigned to read and research a biography for the second-grade “biography breakfast,” we found A Picture Book of Anne Frank by David A. Adler.
Mr. Adler is a prolific children’s author, and among his work is a series of biographies which are often used to introduce children to important historical figures.
The Anne Frank book includes “kid-friendly” illustrations and easily understood text that present the difficult subject matter to young students. The book also includes an author’s note and important facts and dates. I read this book with my daughter in the 1990s when she was in the second grade, and it is still part of my home library.
Last year, I was privileged to assist a third-grade girl with her “wax museum” project on Anne Frank. We used my treasured copy of the David A. Adler book, and we supplemented it with a book from the current popular Who Is/Was series—Who was Anne Frank by Ann Abramson.
This book is an account of Anne Frank’s life before she and her family were forced into hiding, while she lived in the attic apartment and the legacy of her life and diary. There are black and white illustrations, maps, and diagrams, and again, the biography is appropriate for younger readers and reluctant readers.
Both of these books serve as an excellent introduction to the life of a pivotal figure in this tragic historical period. My third grader, a struggling reader, attempted to read the actual diary with help from her older siblings—it was one of the books she took home from our school library when the pandemic shut everything down.
by Lois Lowry
Number the Stars is an important segment of the fourth-grade curriculum in our school district and has been an integral part since my now-adult daughter was in school.
She read it as a fourth-grader, and it is still utilized as a read aloud in the classroom today. Published in 1989, it was a recipient of the Newberry Award and the National Jewish Book Award in the children’s category. The setting is Nazi-occupied Denmark and depicts the bravery of ordinary citizens who risk their lives to help their Jewish neighbors.
Like many novels aimed at middle-grade readers, the book serves as an introduction to a tumultuous time in history but shields them from frightening and graphic details. When utilized in the classroom, the book can serve as a springboard to further study of the Holocaust, which can be individualized according to the developmental and academic levels of the students.
by Marie McSwigan
Snow Treasure is an “oldie but goodie.” I remember reading this book as a child, and the interesting fact is that it was written in 1942 during the war.
Two years ago, it was used in the fourth-grade resource room as a companion tool to Number the Stars. The novel is set in Nazi-occupied Norway and tells the story of a group of children recruited to smuggle gold bullion past the enemy soldiers to reach a ship that would transport the gold to America.
This story is an action-packed, suspense-filled novel which may be based on true events, and it can stimulate further study based on the interest and needs of the students. It was the winner of the 1945 Young Reader’s Choice Award.
by Ian Serrailler
This is another older book that I remember reading when I was in elementary school. The novel is set in Poland and concerns three children who are trying to make their way out of Warsaw in order to reunite with their parents, who may be in Switzerland.
The book was written in 1956, and its original title is The Silver Sword, and is also based on true events. The novel contains more information and details about the devastation of war and the discrimination faced by the Jewish population, and for this reason, I recommend it for older readers (tweens).
It is an excellent children’s classic, and I highly recommend it for a class read aloud or for a parent and child to read together.
by Lauren Tarshis
A more recent addition to this list of historical fiction books is I Survived, The Nazi Invasion by Lauren Tarshis. The extremely popular I Survived series presents historical events to middle-grade readers with a fast-paced and dramatic approach.
Each story showcases children caught up within a situation or a natural disaster, and the reader is swept along in their journey as they face immense challenges. This book is set in Nazi-occupied Poland, and a brother and sister are struggling to escape from the invaders.
There is action, suspense, fear, and just the right amount of information about the impact of the occupation upon the Jewish population. There is also a section with author’s notes and factual information.
Like many other books, this can also be used as a springboard to stimulate further study, depending on the readers’ interests.
by Jane Yolen
This heartbreaking novel is more appropriate for teenagers, and some exposure to the horrors of the Holocaust is highly recommended.
Published in 1988, the main character is a young girl, Hannah Stern, living in New Rochelle, New York. During her family’s Passover Seder, she is bored, until magically, when she opens the door for Elijah, she is transported back in time to 1942 Poland, where her identity is changed to Chaya Abramowicz.
What Hannah experiences during her journey as Chaya opens her heart and mind to the importance of acknowledging and embracing her heritage when she returns to the present. This book is a bit more graphic than the previous novels in this essay, and thus, I recommend it for more mature readers.
There is also a film based on the book starring Kirsten Dunst and Brittany Murphy.
by John Boyne
This is another Holocaust novel recommended for mature readers because of its graphic details. The story is told by a nine-year-old boy, the son of a Commandant who is one of the guards at Auschwitz.
Bruno has no idea of what goes on within the confines of this strange place, and one day he decides to explore the area around the wire fence which separates his house from the camp. He sees people wearing “striped pajamas,” and he meets a young Jewish boy exactly his age on the other side of the fence.
This friendship will lead to unimaginable consequences for Bruno, Shmuel, and Bruno’s family. Although the book is told through a child’s point of view, it is brutal in its honesty and is definitely recommended for older readers.
There is also a movie based on this novel, and reading the book along with watching the movie will provide an opportunity for intense discussion.
10. The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak
This book is classified as Young Adult, but when I first read it, I was surprised that it was not considered to be an “adult” novel. It is definitely appropriate for very mature readers.
The narrator of the story is Death, and the protagonist is a nine-year-old child named Liesel. She lives with her foster parents in Germany during the years of the Nazi regime. Liesel is known as the Book Thief because of her fascination with the written word, a fascination which is in complete contrast to the Nazi focus on book burning.
This novel is fascinating and gritty, definitely not for the squeamish. However, it is certainly a scholarly piece of literature rife with symbolism, character study, and thematic lessons for mature readers.
Again, there is an excellent movie adaptation of this amazing book, and if studied as a unit, there would be many animated discussions. The novel has garnered many awards and is highly recommend for young adult and adult readers.
by Anne Frank
No list of Holocaust literature would be complete without Anne Frank’s Diary. Most people know the background of the story of Anne Frank. She was born in Germany, but her family moved to the Netherlands when Hitler’s Nazis took over the country.
When the Nazis invaded Holland, Anne’s father had made arrangements for the family to go into hiding in a hidden apartment in the attic of his place of business. The family spent over two years sequestered in the Secret Annex, along with another family and a single dentist. Unfortunately, they were betrayed and captured by the Nazis, and all were transported to concentration camps. Only Anne’s father survived.
However, Anne’s father may have been the only person to survive the horrors of the Holocaust, but something else did as well. Anne had been a prolific writer even before their life in hiding had begun. She was given a diary on her thirteenth birthday, and she wrote her innermost feelings down.
She was a typical adolescent girl, writing about her school, her friends, crushes on boys, and difficulties with her family. She continued her writing in the Secret Annex, and as she got older, her writing became more mature and introspective. She also wrote whimsical stories, and she hopes to survive to become a well-known writer.
When they were captured, the soldiers left the apartment in disarray, and after they were gone, those who had helped the family saved the precious writings and gave them to Anne’s father. The diary was published as a book in the 1950s, and there have been several annotated editions since then.
In addition, there was a play adapted from the book, which also became a movie. I was fortunate to see the Broadway adaptation with my daughter when she was in fifth grade; Natalie Portman and Linda Lavin were two of the actors. As previously discussed, there are also children’s books that are available to introduce younger readers to Anne’s story.
Although some people may feel that Anne Frank’s Diary is a YA book, this is a piece of writing which has an enduring legacy and should be shared, in its appropriate forms, with readers of all ages.
There are many Holocaust-themed books available to audiences of all ages, and I have barely scratched the surface. More are being written all the time.
I have tried to provide a sample of those novels and true stories that will appeal to children and students across the grade levels. These stories are important to share because they represent a time in history that has repercussions for future generations.
I hope the readers of this article are inspired to utilize some or all of these books to share the stories and lessons of the Holocaust.