The best middle grade historical novels with exceptional child heroes

Who am I?

A longtime student of history, particularly WW2 and the Cold War, my interest was personally piqued when I started to discover more about how my husband’s family narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo – and certain death in a concentration camp. I’m driven to write novels set in this era for middle grade kids – featuring brave young heroes faced with moral dilemmas– so they can learn about the horrors of antisemitism, tyrants, and war because “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”

I wrote...

One Boy's War

By Nancy McDonald,

Book cover of One Boy's War

What is my book about?

It’s the summer of 1940. Following a brush with death on the Irish Sea, ten-year-old Käfer Avigdor unexpectedly finds himself back in London. There, he stumbles upon a sinister Nazi plot that targets hundreds of people in Britain – including the most powerful man in the country. The one person who might be able to defeat Adolf Hitler. With the Germans threatening to invade England at any moment, Käfer musters all his courage and ingenuity in a valiant effort to thwart the Nazis. But will he succeed in time to save the day? As told by Käfer himself,  One Boy’s War (the sequel to Boy from Berlin) is inspired by real people and historical events. BookLife Prize calls it “an adventure story with truly high stakes. Young readers are unlikely to have encountered a hero like Käfer Avigdor.”

The books I picked & why

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Lifeboat 12

By Susan Hood,

Book cover of Lifeboat 12

Why this book?

A page-turning, true-life adventure! The story is told in first-person verse by 13-year-old Ken Sparks whose parents send him from England to Canada at the start of the Blitz as part of the British government’s ill-fated child evacuee program. Five days into the crossing, his ship, the SS Benares, is torpedoed by a German U-Boat, and as it sinks fast, Ken finds himself in a lifeboat with five other boys fighting for their lives. I read this book and loved it from page one. Although they come from very different backgrounds, Ken and Käfer share endearing qualities: pluck, resourcefulness, and a child’s optimistic view of the world. All of which stand them in good stead.


By Morris Gleitzman,

Book cover of Once

Why this book?

A riveting read. Ten-year-old Felix Salinger is Jewish and living in a Catholic orphanage in Poland as war rages in Europe. His parents tell him they’ve put him there to keep him safe while they attend to their book-selling business. But when the Nazis come to the orphanage, remove books from the library, and burn them, Felix becomes worried about his parents and sets out to find them. Although he makes friends along the way, including Barney (the man who will help to save his life), his journey is fraught with real danger as he learns the terrible truth about what’s happening to Jews. Told in Felix’s voice, it’s a gripping tale inspired in part, by the life of Janusz Korczak, a Polish-Jewish children’s author and principal of an orphanage.

Camp X

By Eric Walters,

Book cover of Camp X

Why this book?

It’s summer 1943 and brothers George and Jack Braun have moved to Whitby, Ontario where their mother has a job in a munitions factory while their father is off fighting the Nazis. Bored, they’re playing make-believe war games one day when they stumble on a highly secret training school for spies. When they learn of a German plan to invade it, they're determined to thwart it – whatever it takes. Inspired by the real Camp X, it’s an entertaining read – I like the relationship between the brothers, it rings true – and, in a nice touch, there’s a cameo appearance by a real-life person, in this case, spymaster William Stephenson, best known as the inspiration for James Bond! 

The Shakespeare Stealer

By Gary Blackwood,

Book cover of The Shakespeare Stealer

Why this book?

Widge is an orphan in Elizabethan England, where orphans are sadly too common. But Widge is unusual. He has a unique talent which he learned from his first master: he knows a secret kind of shorthand. Sold to a dastardly villain who wants to use that talent to steal Shakespeare’s newest play, Widge finds himself in London apprenticing with the theatre company. Will he steal the play or risk his life to be loyal to the only “family” he’s ever known? Inspired by Shakespeare’s Lord Chamberlain's Men – and a very real problem of plays being stolen – there’s plenty of action, including swashbuckling swordplay. From the first page, I found myself rooting for Widge, hoping he would make the right choice and live to become an actor in the company.

A Night Divided

By Jennifer A. Nielsen,

Book cover of A Night Divided

Why this book?

Eight-year-old Gerta Lowe wakes up on August 13, 1961 to find that a wall of barbed wire has been erected during the night, cutting off East Berlin, where she lives with her mother and older brother Fritz, from West Berlin where her father has gone to look for work. Suspected of treason, he can’t return home. Four years – and dozens of deaths later the wire has been replaced with concrete.  East Berliners, watched day and night by soldiers and the dreaded Stasi secret police, are prisoners in their own homes. Then, Gerta gets two cryptic messages and decides that her father is telling her to tunnel beneath the wall to freedom. But in a city where everyone is spying on everyone else, and no one can be trusted, is she brave enough to try – and clever enough to succeed?

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