Last week was, among other things, our school book fair (one of my favorite times). I always go in with a few lenses–myself as a reader, my children at home, and of course my readers across K-5 at school. Most years I have time to shop the fair 2 (or even 3) times and add to or refine my initial selections. I may set aside a couple of intriguing biographies for a 4th grade class, or a little something special for an intervention kiddo I know well. This year I had one shot.
I ended up selecting three stories that actually shared an overarching theme–You are strong enough to survive whatever comes your way.
Historical fiction is a favorite genre, and World War II always seems to grab the attention of a few readers when we focus on that genre at school. Our WWII collection for 4th & 5th grade readers is a bit slim, however, because of the obviously challenging content that can be associated with war. So when I spotted Sink or Swim: A Novel of World War II by Steve Watkins and Prisoner of War: A Novel of World War II by Michael Spradlin, I decided to give them a try. I stayed awake way too late for a few nights last week gobbling them up. Both were engaging.
Sink or Swim is the story of a boy who runs away to the Navy to help his family. At only 12, he has to lie about his age and rely on how urgently the Navy needs sailors to combat the growing German U-boat threat. Besides, he has a personal grudge against those subs. Maybe because the life on a ship really is repetitive, the story felt like a repeating list at times. However, it would be a good example of foreshadowing as events early on presage the ones later. Interestingly, this book was inspired by the true story of the youngest boy to serve in WWII. Readers will enjoy the loyal friendship and the depth charges in a race to blow subs out of the water. Then they will pause with Colton when he realizes that up close the enemy looks a lot like him. Some of my 5th graders could handle this book, though it would be well suited in a middle school class library as well.
Prisoner of War was a much more intense story before Henry ever left home. With the help of his loving grandfather (and a surprising lack of a birth certificate) he fled to the Marines to escape his father’s abuse. As another example of a tall, sturdy boy who passed for 18 long enough to be shipped off to the Phillipines, Henry found himself adopted by two members of his unit who kept a close eye on him. All three were captured and forcibly moved to a POW camp in what is now known as the Battan Death March. Very soon Henry finds opportunities to protect those who had protected him. Always concerned that his fear made him a coward, Henry was the epitome of courage in the face of insurmountable odds. Frequent beatings and torture make this a book I’ll pass along to my middle school counterparts. But the message that emerges is that we are stronger–and strong enough–together.
Finally, I read The Trail by Meika Hashimoto because my oldest has said repeatedly that he’d like to go off and live in the woods for awhile. This was a touching story of finding yourself by getting lost, unmoored from all that had previously defined you. Caution: a secondary character attempts suicide late in the book. On the positive side, the kindness of strangers prevails.
If you need to feel strong enough, maybe one of these three stories is for you. Or if you need to reach out to someone whose reading life lives a little on the edge, perhaps you’ll pass one of them along.