The best middle grade books about England’s World War II evacuations

Kate Albus Author Of A Place to Hang the Moon
By Kate Albus

Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated by England’s World War II evacuations since I was a child. Appropriately enough, I first learned of this extraordinary historical event in a story: it’s the reason the Pevensies are sent to the Professor’s house in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In the dark days of World War II, more than a million English children boarded trains, buses, and ships, to be picked up and cared for by strangers, in some cases for the duration of the war. It’s a historical event that is as astonishing to me now as it was when I first read of it all those years ago. 

I wrote...

A Place to Hang the Moon

By Kate Albus,

Book cover of A Place to Hang the Moon

What is my book about?

William, Edmund, and Anna aren’t terribly upset by the death of their not-so-grandmotherly grandmother, but they do need a guardian, and in the dark days of World War II London, those are in rather short supply. Could the mass wartime evacuation of children be the answer? It’s a preposterous plan, but off they go, keeping their predicament a secret and hoping to be placed in a temporary home that ends up lasting forever. 

A Place to Hang the Moon is about the comforting power of stories and the dire importance of family: the one you’re given, and the one you choose.

The books I picked & why

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The Valley of Lost Secrets

By Lesley Parr,

Book cover of The Valley of Lost Secrets

Why this book?

Not only is this a heartfelt evacuee story, it’s also a brilliant mystery. When Jimmy and his brother, Ronnie, are sent to the Welsh countryside to escape the bombings, Jimmy is angry at the adults responsible – “They think they know everything but all they do is leave or make wars or send their children away.” The boys eventually warm to their kind foster parents, but some of the villagers aren’t so welcoming. When Jimmy finds a skull in a hollow tree, he has no idea how it’s tied to an unsolved mystery, and the reader has no idea how it will figure in this story’s gripping, satisfying, and emotional conclusion. 

Letters from the Lighthouse

By Emma Carroll,

Book cover of Letters from the Lighthouse

Why this book?

I adore all of Emma Carroll’s delicious historical fiction, but Letters from the Lighthouse is my favorite. After the Luftwaffe’s bombings separate them from their mother and older sister, Olive and Cliff are evacuated to Devonshire. There, they end up billeted with the shy and enigmatic young lighthouse keeper, Ephraim Pengilly, who is tasked with taking the children in “whether he likes it or not.” Gorgeously atmospheric (the lighthouse alone – “a beacon to guide the lost to safety” – would have been enough for me), Letters from the Lighthouse also features unexpected friendships, the glimmer of a love story, and a sister who may be a spy.

Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of "The Children's Ship"

By Deborah Heiligman,

Book cover of Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of "The Children's Ship"

Why this book?

My own kids absolutely devoured non-fiction when they were middle-graders, and this book would have topped their lists. Torpedoed tells the story of the torpedoing and tragic sinking of the SS City of Benares, an ocean liner bearing English evacuees to Canada. Full of photographs, excerpts from letters, first-person accounts, and ephemera like packing lists, other evacuation paperwork, and even the ship’s emergency drill instructions, Deborah Heiligman’s book belongs in every middle-grade non-fiction collection. There is heartbreak and tragedy in these pages, but there is also extraordinary bravery and heroism. I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

The War That Saved My Life

By Kimberly Brubaker Bradley,

Book cover of The War That Saved My Life

Why this book?

This book is perhaps my daughter’s favorite novel of all time. And she’s certainly not the only kid who feels that way. I can’t even estimate how many children (and adults!) have told me this book is their number-one. Ada’s abusive mother keeps her locked up in their London apartment because of her twisted foot, but when Ada’s brother, Jamie, is evacuated to the countryside to escape the bombings, Ada runs away to be with him. What follows is not only a page-turner, but a poignant, heart-rending, and harrowing story about the healing power of love and acceptance. Bradley’s evacuee tale has become a modern classic, for good reason.

When the Siren Wailed

By Noel Streatfeild,

Book cover of When the Siren Wailed

Why this book?

Several evacuee novels published in the few decades after the war became beloved classics. Michelle Magorian’s Good Night, Mr. Tom, and Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War, for example, are extraordinary. But my favorite of this era’s evacuee novels is Noel Streatfeild’s. Laura, Andy, and Tim Clark are none too happy to be sent away from their London home, so it’s a pleasant surprise when they find themselves comfortable in the care of Colonel Launcelot Stranger Stranger (not a typo… that’s his name). But when the Colonel dies suddenly, the Clarks run away back to London and their mum. It’s Streatfeild’s ever-so-dry wit that made me fall for this one, and her wry portrayal of the children’s experience in both the countryside and the Blitz-torn streets of London.

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