Middle School History Through Literature Unit: World War II to 2000

I wanted to share this booklist for those looking for a group of novels covering the 2nd half of the 20th Century.  All these books are well-written, thought provoking without being preachy, and full of compelling characters.  My children still can tell you about every one of these novels, even though we read some of them a few years back.

Obviously this is not an exhaustive list, but only ones I think make a good complement of books to examine 1940-2000. Without further ado:

World War 2:

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Code Talker (Joseph Bruchac)- This is the true story of a group of Navajo men recruited to the Marines in WWII to create a code the Nazis couldn’t crack.

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Bomb: The Race to Build- and Steal- the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon (Steve Sheinkin).  This book paints the Manhattan Project and all its implications in vivid color and sets the stage for the Cold War.

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The Endless Steppe (Esther Hautzig): Hautzig’s account of living as a Jewish exile in Siberia during WWII is both very specific in its details and broad in its view of human nature.  Unlike some more modern children’s literature (I’m looking at you, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), it does not suggest that the power of friendship was enough to mitigate the evils of the Holocaust.

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The House of Sixty Fathers (Meindert DeJong): This book tells the take of a Chinese boy whose village is destroyed by the Japanese.  I think we often focus on the European aspects of WWII.  DeJong’s book is a good way to introduce the Pacific front.

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Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes (Eleanor Coerr): Sadako is the simplest title on this list, but it is a beautiful book and a good complement to Bomb.

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The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny and the Fight for Civil Rights (Steve Sheinkin) is another non-fiction title for youth that holds both the real people and the implications for history in perfect balance.  Great fodder for discussions on racism, civil rights, and WWII.

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Code Name Verity (Elizabeth Wein) is a novel portraying the friendship between two teenagers who signed up to fight WWII in England and France.  The brutality of war is portraying without being too graphic, but this is a book for the older middle school crowd.  This book is perfect for lots of “what would you have done?” questions.


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October Sky (aka, Rocket Boys) (Homer Hickman) is a memoir of a future NASA engineer and his buddies who, inspired by Sputnik, decide to build a rocket in a West Virginia mining town.  While my kids were most focused on the rocket building adventures (and misadventures), we all absorbed lots of late-fifties history and had an eye-opening encounter with the dying mining culture in Appalachia.  I did edit a bit of the teenage love/angst.

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Dead End in Norvelt (Jack Gantos): Pure fiction set in 1962, full of humor and great characters.  We were so entertained we didn’t notice how much we learned about the importance of history and life during the early Cold War.

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Countdown and Revolution (both by Deborah Wiles): Countdown tells the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis from the perspective of Franny Chapman, an entertaining fifth grader.  Within the book are actual newspaper clips from 1962, which fascinated my readers.  Revolution is the story of the “Freedom Summer” of 1964, also accompanied by primary documents embedded within the book.

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The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 (Christopher Paul Curtis)- Curtis tells a beautiful and powerful story of family and consequences through the Watson family’s journey from Flint, Michigan, to Birmingham Alabama, in 1963.

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The Wednesday Wars (Gary D. Schmidt): The Wednesday Wars remains one of our family’s favorite books of all time.  It tells the story of Holling Hoodhood’s 7th grade year, 1968.   It is a seamless weaving of specific history, Shakespeare, the universal trials of childhood, and the power of love.

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Okay for Now (Gary D. Schmidt) follows a supporting character from The Wednesday Wars, Doug Swietek, through the year of his dislocation and his wounded brother’s return from Vietnam.  This is no warm, fuzzy tale of family reunited.  It is the story of what you do to survive a broken family, and how hope may come from surprising places.  This one is a hard read emotionally and has very difficult subject matter. Save it for your older readers.

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Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood (Ibtisam Barakat): Barakat’s memoir is told in vignettes from her family’s flight from Ramallah, Palestine,  during the Six Day War in 1967, and its aftermath.  She writes beautifully and without self-pity.  Lots of questions to discuss about war and peace.

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Revolution is Not a Dinner Party (Ying Chang Compestine): This is the story of 1972 during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, as seen through the eyes of 8 year-old Ling, a narrator with vision beyond her years.  My son liked it so much he made my husband read it.

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A Long Walk to Water (Linda Sue Park): Park weaves together two refugees’ stories. Salva flees his small Sudanese village in the wake of a 1985 explosion to make his way to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, and eventually to the US.  Nya, an eleven-year-old in Sudan in 2008, spends her life walking for water.  The intersection of these two characters is beautiful and astonishing.

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The Day of the Pelican (Katherine Paterson): Paterson tells a powerful tale of modern refugees through Meli and her family’s flight from Kosovo in 1998 until they make a new home in New England, just after September 11, 2001.

Obviously, this is not a comprehensive list, but a manageable one.  What are your favorite late-20th Century books for middle schoolers?






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