If you’re a young adult (YA) reader who enjoys historical fiction, chances are you’ve read some of the books on this list. If you’ve missed some (or if you’ve missed them all), you’re in for a treat! This list includes a number of my all-time favorite YA books.
But if you’re new to YA fiction, these books are also a great way to dip your toe in the waters. I’ll go right ahead and tell you that my favorites are The Book Thief and the books by Ruta Sepetys and Elizabeth Wein (especially Code Name Verity).
I consider YA books to be for kids ages 14 and up (as well as adults). Most of the books fall into this range, though The Boy Who Dared and Code Talker are more like 12 and up.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on these books–and to know of any amazing books that I’m missing.
For my master list of book lists, click/tap here.
YA World War II Fiction
The Boy Who Dared by Susan Campbell Bartoletti.
While writing her excellent, Newbery Honor-winning nonfiction book Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow, author Susan Campbell Bartoletti became fascinated by the story of Helmuth Hübener, a young German who resisted the Nazi government by distributing leaflets containing information he heard from illicit BBC radio broadcasts. In The Boy Who Dared, Bartoletti offers a compelling, fictional account of Helmuth’s life via the flashbacks he experiences as he awaits execution.
Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman.
OK, this book isn’t actually set during World War II, but since it’s about Hitler’s rise to power in 1930s Munich, I figured I could add it to the list. Gretchen Müller is extremely devoted to her “Uncle” Adolf Hitler, but her loyalty is tested when she meets a handsome Jewish reporter who helps her discover the truth about Uncle Dolf’s friendship with her deceased father. This evocative and romantic historical thriller offers a detailed glimpse into the complications of life in pre-war Germany.
Code Talker by Joseph Bruchac.
Ned Begay tells his grandchildren about his experiences at a Navajo mission school and as a U.S. Marine during World War II. He and other Navajos used their language (which was scorned at the mission school) to create an unbreakable code. They also participated in some of the war’s heaviest fighting. It’s actually been nearly ten years since I read this book, but I still remember being impressed by the Navajo soldiers and their contributions to the war.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.
This is an adult novel, but since the two protagonists are teenagers and it’s perfectly appropriate for teen readers, I wanted to include it (also, it’s an incredible, Pulitzer Prize-winner story). Marie-Laure is a blind girl living with her father in Paris and Werner is a young German with a talent for engineering. Their paths collide near the end of the book when Marie-Laure seeks refuge in a small coastal town and Werner is sent there to track Resistance activity.
Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse.
In 1943 Amsterdam, Hanneke delivers black market goods while mourning the death of her boyfriend. When a client persuades her to investigate the disappearance of a young Jewish woman, Hanneke is grudgingly swept into the dangerous work of the Dutch Resistance. While I thoroughly enjoyed this book, I admit that Hanneke is not a favorite heroine. Still, I appreciate the author’s effort to create a complex, imperfect protagonist, and the book’s plot and setting are fantastic.
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys.
Ruta Sepetys excels at writing fabulous novels about little-known historical events. In this, her debut novel, she tells the story of Lina, a Lithuanian girl who is deported to Siberia after Russia invades her country. It can be painful to read about Lina’s experiences as her family struggles to survive amid freezing conditions and little access to food. Still, Sepetys finds ways to show how the human spirit can triumph–such as Lina’s love for art and the time a Red Cross doctor arrived just in time to save their lives. Sepetys, the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, wrote this book after she learned how members of her own family were deported to Siberia.
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys.
In 1945, the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed by a Russian ship before it sank into the Baltic Sea, killing over 9,000 Nazi officials, German civilians, and other refugees fleeing the advancing Russian Army. In Salt to the Sea, Sepetys recounts this little-known tragedy through the perspectives of four different narrators–Joana, a Lithuanian refugee; Alfred, a zealous (yet incompetent) German soldier; Emilie, a pregnant Pole; and Florian, a mysterious East Prussian. I absolutely loved this book, and while it certainly has its heartbreaking moments, there’s also plenty of hope and even a few happy endings.
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.
When a British plane containing two best friends (a pilot and a secret agent) crashes in France, one young woman is arrested while the other manages to escape. As “Verity” is interrogated (and tortured) by Nazi agents, she reveals the story of her friendship with Maddie and the events leading to their crash. Verity, Maddie, and their tumultuous times are brought vividly to life in this gripping, don’t-miss thriller.
Rose under Fire by Elizabeth Wein.
In this companion novel to Code Name Verity, American pilot (and poet) Rose Justice ferries airplanes for the British Air Force. When a transport through France goes awry, Rose is captured and taken to Ravensbruck, the infamous women’s concentration camp. As Rose struggles to survive amid appalling conditions, she develops friendships with many women, from a Russian fighter pilot to some of the Ravensbruck “Rabbits” (Polish women who were subjected to horrific experiments by Nazi doctors.) While I preferred Code Name Verity, Rose under Fire is a compelling (and at times harrowing) survival story.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.
Last but definitely not least, The Book Thief stands out not only because it’s one of the best YA books ever, but also for the uniqueness of its omniscient narrator–Death. Yes, Death. He’s actually a pretty affable fellow, and he takes a strong interest (unusual for him) in the life of Liesel Meminger, a German girl who steals books at key moments of her life. Still traumatized by the loss of her family, Liesel lives with foster parents outside Munich as the effects of war come ever closer–until, finally, they explode (literally) on her doorstep.
For my master list of book lists, click/tap here.
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