The best books on viewing World War II through the eyes of children

Heinz Kohler Author Of My Name Was Five: A Novel of the Second World War
By Heinz Kohler

Who am I?

Heinz Kohler was born in Berlin, Germany, where he grew up before and during World War II. By the war's end, he found himself in rural East Germany and spent years watching the Nazi tyranny give way to a Communist one. Since 1961, he taught economics at Amherst College, while also logging thousands of flight hours as a commercial pilot. These numerous experiences come to life in a powerful tale of war and its aftermath. As David R. Mayhew, Yale University Sterling Professor of Political Science, put it “In novelistic form, this is a riveting child’s-eye account of growing up in Germany under the Nazis and then the Russians. Laced with extraordinary photos and posters from these times, it combines memory with testimony.”


I wrote...

My Name Was Five: A Novel of the Second World War

By Heinz Kohler,

Book cover of My Name Was Five: A Novel of the Second World War

What is my book about?

When a private plane crashes in Florida in 1991, the surviving pilot makes the strangest of remarks. “It was World War II,” he says. The National Transportation Safety Board attributes the accident to a collision with birds, but one stubborn investigator insists on going further. Before long, his inquiry reveals how the pilot’s past had trailed him on his last flight and vividly brings to life a terrifying slice of history–the story of a German boy who grows up in Berlin before, during, and after the Second World War; sadistic teachers just call him FiveThe boy’s father, an opponent of the Nazis, ends up in a concentration camp and later in a penal regiment that marches through Russian minefields to clear the way for regular troops. In contrast, one of the boy’s uncles is a fervent Nazi in charge of cleansing Hitler’s capital of every last Jew; another uncle revels in the governance of Paris. A favorite aunt, a confidential secretary at the Gestapo, is horrified by all she knows about the “final solution.” The boy’s mother is the one who keeps him sane when Spitfire guns kill his best friend standing right next to him on a bridge. But worse is to come: bombings and firestorms, the senseless sacrifice of children and old men in the battle of Berlin, the Soviet occupation, along with rape, murder, hunger, and disease, and then the emergence of a new kind of tyranny yet. In the end, we come upon an unexpected twist that shows how the consequences of war can emerge decades later and in faraway places.

The books I picked & why

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All the Light We Cannot See

By Anthony Doerr,

Book cover of All the Light We Cannot See

Why this book?

This is a beautifully written story about a blind French girl and a German boy whose lives are interwoven in occupied France as both try to survive the horrors of World War II. The boy’s infatuation with building a radio that can bring them news they can trust reminds me of my own illegal activities in Berlin, where listening to the BBC on an outlawed radio was crucial for my family, but punishable by death.

All the Light We Cannot See

By Anthony Doerr,

Why should I read it?

18 authors picked All the Light We Cannot See as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE 2015 PULITZER PRIZE FOR FICTION
NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
WINNER OF THE CARNEGIE MEDAL FOR FICTION

A beautiful, stunningly ambitious novel about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II

Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.'

For Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, the world is full of mazes. The miniature of a Paris neighbourhood, made by her father to teach her the way home. The microscopic…


A Mad Desire to Dance

By Elie Wiesel,

Book cover of A Mad Desire to Dance

Why this book?

A beautiful novel about Doriel, a European expatriate living in New York, who was a hidden child during the war, while his mother was a member of the Resistance, and who is still haunted by his parents' secrets. A psychoanalyst finally helps him deal with his own ghosts, which reminds me of decades of PTSD I myself inherited from that war and the associated sufferings of family and friends I had to witness.

A Mad Desire to Dance

By Elie Wiesel,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Mad Desire to Dance as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Now in paperback, Wiesel’s newest novel “reminds us, with force, that his writing is alive and strong. The master has once again found a startling freshness.”—Le Monde des Livres
 
A European expatriate living in New York, Doriel suffers from a profound sense of desperation and loss. His mother, a member of the Resistance, survived World War II only to die soon after in France in an accident, together with his father. Doriel was a hidden child during the war, and his knowledge of the Holocaust is largely limited to what he finds in movies, newsreels, and books. Doriel’s parents and…


A Boy in Winter

By Rachel Seiffert,

Book cover of A Boy in Winter

Why this book?

Early on a grey November morning in 1941, only weeks after the German invasion, a small Ukrainian town is overrun by the SS. This novel focusses on Yankel, a boy determined to survive when all hope seems lost. This is a powerful story about terror and fear and the possibility of courage to face them. It reminds me of a day in the 1930s when my own father was ordered to appear at SS headquarters and urged to join them as a volunteer. When he refused, life was changed forever for his wife and child, and he soon found himself in a penal regiment clearing mine fields on the eastern front.

A Boy in Winter

By Rachel Seiffert,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked A Boy in Winter as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Early on a grey November morning in 1941, only weeks after the German invasion, a small Ukrainian town is overrun by the SS. Deft, spare and devastating, Rachel Seiffert's new novel tells of the three days that follow and the lives that are overturned in the process. Penned in with his fellow Jews, under threat of transportation, Ephraim anxiously awaits word of his two sons, missing since daybreak. Come in search of her lover, to fetch him home again, away from the invaders, Yasia must confront new and harsh truths about those closest to her. Here to avoid a war…


The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

By John Boyne,

Book cover of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Why this book?

Berlin, 1942: Two young boys encounter the best and worst of humanity during the Holocaust in this powerful book. Here Bruno meets another boy whose life and circumstances are very different from his own, and their meeting results in a friendship that has devastating consequences. This reminds me of the day when my own best friend, Dieter, was fatally shot by a Spitfire while standing just two feet away from me, a scene featured on the cover of my book.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

By John Boyne,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Boy in the Striped Pajamas as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The story of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is very difficult to describe. Usually we give some clues about the book on the cover, but in this case we think that would spoil the reading of the book. We think it is important that you start to read without knowing what it is about.

If you do start to read this book, you will go on a journey with a nine-year-old boy called Bruno. And sooner or later you will arrive with Bruno at a fence.

We hope you never have to cross such a fence.


Surviving the Fatherland: A True Coming-Of-Age Love Story Set in WWII Germany

By Annette Oppenlander,

Book cover of Surviving the Fatherland: A True Coming-Of-Age Love Story Set in WWII Germany

Why this book?

Solingen, Germany, 1940: Here begins the story of 7-year old Lilly and 12-year old Günter whose lives spiral out of control as the war escalates, bombs begin to rain and people die. A sweeping family saga of love, betrayal, and PTSD similar to the one I witnessed as well.

Surviving the Fatherland: A True Coming-Of-Age Love Story Set in WWII Germany

By Annette Oppenlander,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Surviving the Fatherland as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner/Nominee of eight awards

“This book needs to join the ranks of the classic survivor stories of WWII such as ‘Diary of Anne Frank’ and ‘Man's Search for Meaning’. It is truly that amazing!” InD'tale Magazine

“This type of raw, articulate, history-based storytelling pays homage to the war children who bore witness while struggling to survive.” Publishers Weekly (PW)

Based on a true story and set against the epic panorama of WWII, SURVIVING THE FATHERLAND is a sweeping saga of family, love, and betrayal that illuminates an intimate part of history seldom seen: the children's war - a tale of…


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Interested in World War 2, the Holocaust, and Germany?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about World War 2, the Holocaust, and Germany.

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