Five ways books can get children interested in the Second World War
Published on: 05 September 2023
Code Name Kingfisher author Liz Kessler shares her tips for engaging children in history via the medium of stories.
Liz Kessler and the cover of Code Name Kingfisher
You don't have to study history to be inspired by it
Let me start with a confession: I’ve never really been interested in history. It wasn’t my favourite subject at school and I just about scraped a pass at ‘O’ level. (Oops, slightly giving away my age there.) Even as an adult, if I hear people talk about ‘History’, I find myself switching off.
At first, I thought that made me the last person to give advice on how to get young people interested in any aspect of history. But thinking about it, perhaps it makes me the ideal person to do it. Because in the last few years, I’ve gone from an author who mostly wrote about mermaids, fairies and time travel to an author of two novels about World War Two. And I can’t help thinking: if I could get inspired by this period, perhaps anyone can!
So here are my thoughts getting young people interested in World War Two through fiction.
1. Focus on books you enjoy
Something I would apply to reading in general. In this case, that means finding books that the young people you’re hoping to interest in the subject will be likely to enjoy. Go to a bookshop or library, find the section that includes books on this period – both in terms of the subject matter and the age group – and pick out the books with an appealing cover, especially the ones with young people on the cover. Read the blurb on the back, open the book and read the first page. See if you think the writing style, the subject matter, the length of the book, the cover would appeal to the young people in mind.
You could also do a search online or on social media and find recommended reading lists on the subject, such as this one, then work your way through these and find the ones that will appeal to the children you’re hoping to get hooked on the subject.
2. Become as familiar as you can with the subject matter.
This doesn’t mean that we all have to be experts on World War Two. But if you’re going to read a book with a class, make sure you’ve read it yourself first and have done a bit of relevant research so you’re ready for questions that the book might bring up. If the book can generate stimulating conversations as you’re reading, you are much more likely to be able to bring the subject alive for the young people you’re reading it with.
3. Familiarise yourself with current writers on this subject.
OK, this one is a shameless plug and a couple of suggestions. There are so many books out there on the subject of World War Two that it can be a bit bewildering to know where to start.
I would say start with contemporary authors as they will be writing books in a modern way that is most likely to appeal to modern kids.
My suggestions for where to start would include authors such as Lesley Parr, Phil Earle, Tom Palmer and (cough, cough) me! As adults, the temptation for many of us can be to reach for the books that were our own favourites on a particular subject when we were young, but I believe we should fight that urge and focus on the contemporary stories that will have a much more direct and immediate appeal to a young audience.
4. Make it relevant.
Whichever book you are reading, and whatever period it is about, one of the most important things to do to bring it alive for a young audience is to make it relevant to them. In my recent novel When The World Was Ours, even though the book is set mostly in the years between 1936 and 1945, the novel is, for me, very much about passing on a baton to young people of today. In my new novel, Code Name Kingfisher, there is a contemporary storyline running alongside the story set in Amsterdam in 1942, and my hope is once again that young people will make the links between the two periods and be able to relate to the characters and events.
I think it is absolutely crucial that, if we want young people to read, enjoy and be interested in a subject, we make it relevant for them, not a dusty old history book from the past.
So, even if the book itself doesn’t do that, when sharing it with young people, finding ways to make those links will provide a direct and inspiring way into the subject. (PS Oops, that one turned out to be a shameless plug too!)
5. Visit real places or real people
Finally, if you can possibly do it, bring the subject alive by visiting real places or real people. This could be anything from a visit to somewhere like the Imperial War Museum, if you live close enough, to a visit to Auschwitz or other concentration camps to see first-hand what happened during the war. If this isn’t possible, go online and watch videos together that feature real people talking about their experiences. The IWM have a digital archive that is packed with information.
The Holocaust Educational Trust have speakers who visit schools to talk to young people about their lives. My dad is one of these speakers and I know that a real-life encounter with someone who can talk about what happened during the war – or what their parents went through – is priceless for getting young people interested in the subject.
I hope you found these tips useful. One final tip: if you’ve read one of these books and enjoyed it, or have questions about it, write to the author! Most authors I know are really happy to hear from readers. I’d certainly be delighted to respond if this article or the reading of any of my books leaves you with any questions. Good luck and, on behalf of everyone who wants to keep this subject alive for young people, thank you!
Code Name Kingfisher by Liz Kessler is out now.