The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Puffin Books, 2016)
(Reviewed by Emily Ishida Demuth)
When I first read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I passed right by the second sentence in the book: “This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids.” The adventures that took place on the other side of the wardrobe were much more exciting than the children’s lives in the real world.
Yet somehow the sentence lodged itself in a dark recess of my brain. My interest in the wartime evacuation of England’s children grew as I came across in other novels or movies, and when learning about World War II.
Only as an adult, when I read No Time to Wave Goodbye by Ben Wicks, did I begin to understand the huge impact that the evacuation had on a generation of children. While some children had delightful experiences, others were horrifying – Harry Potter was not the first child to be locked in a cupboard under the stairs.
I work in an elementary school library. When I unpacked The War that Saved my Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, it went to the top of my Must Read list. I recommend that you put it on your list as well.
The story tells of ten-year-old Ada, whose mother has never let her leave their apartment because Ada has a clubfoot. When her younger brother, Jamie, comes home from school with the news that the London children are all being sent to the country, Ada is determined to not be left behind.
In many ways, Ada’s adventures are as much a journey into another world as Lucy’s visits to Narnia. She and Jamie are placed with Susan, a woman who does not want to take in evacuees. The three of them struggle as they build a relationship with one another. Ada’s narrative pulls the reader into her story, her frustrations with not understanding the world into which she has come.
I loved the book, and quickly recommended it to a fifth-grader, even though historical fiction is a hard sell at my school.
Two days later she came back giddy with her enthusiasm for the book. She was jumping up and down as together we raved about the story as best we could, for her friend was right on hand to read it next.
“That was the best book!”
“Wasn’t it great? I loved it.”
“I can’t believe the mom was that mean—”
“Just because of her foot!”
“What about the ending?”
“I was so surprised!”
The interaction made me wonder — what does it take to write historical fiction that elicits a reaction like that from a middle grade reader?
The author does numerous things well.
First, she creates a character with which readers have empathy. Like Wonder by R.J. Palacio, Out of my Mind by Sharon M. Draper, or Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio by Peg Kehret (all popular books at school), children seem drawn to stories where the character has a physical challenge to overcome. Even if they don’t have a facial deformity or polio or another physically challenging condition, many children experience a sense of feeling different, or excluded, or that no one understands them. The emotions and pain expressed by these characters resonate with young readers.
Second, the idea of a ten-year-old who doesn’t know what grass is invites readers to look at the world anew. Ada has so little background knowledge that she hardly knows what to ask, and yet her struggles to understand the world are certainly a part of every child’s journey.
And finally, victory. We all like to see the downtrodden rise to the top. In this book, how does war save a life? Whose life is saved? What is the real war, and what constitutes victory? All these are questions to explore after reading this book.
I also appreciated Susan’s backstory, carefully woven into the book. The youngest readers will not realize the depth of her story, but those who do may understand why she fights so hard for Ada.
Today’s young readers do not have their lives turned upside down quite like the children in wartime London, but they certainly have their own struggles. Middle-grade historical fiction author Gayle Rosengren (Cold War on Maplewood Street) said it well when she compared Cold War air raid drills to today’s school lockdown drills. (See interview on The Storied Past.) Historical fiction offers readers the opportunity to see that children survived and overcame the challenges of past wars, filling us with hope that we can overcome whatever external or internal battles we face.
The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Puffin Books • May 2016
Paperback • 336 pages
Juvenile Fiction/Chapter Book/Ages 8–12
World War II • England
For teachers, here is a link to a Teacher’s Guide for The War That Saved My Life.
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Emily Demuth Ishida and her sister Hilda Demuth-Lutze are co-authors of the middle-grade historical novels, Plank Road Summer and Plank Road Winter, set in southeastern Wisconsin, and Hattie’s War, a Civil War–era novel for middle-grade readers set in Milwaukee. A member of SCBWI, Ms. Ishida lives in Elmhurst, Illiniois.