The best YA books with strong characters set during war

Who am I?

As a reader and writer, I am drawn to stories that have implications for the wider world. I love characters who are put in a box by others—whether based on race, religion, gender, or societal norms—yet they fight against those constraints, proving they have value beyond anyone’s expectations. I write historical fiction because I am an unabashed history nerd. I write Jewish (or Jewish adjacent) stories because I believe it is essential for every reader to find themselves in a book. I also believe it is essential that that same book opens a world of understanding to others. 

I wrote...

Paper Hearts

By Meg Wiviott,

Book cover of Paper Hearts

What is my book about?

Paper Hearts is a novel in verse based on the true story of a group of young women who were prisoners in Auschwitz—forced to work in a munitions factory. Zlatka decided to make a birthday card for her friend Fania. She stole and bartered for paper and scissors, secretly creating an origami heart. Then she passed it to every girl at the work tables to sign with their hopes and wishes for happiness, for love, and most of all—for freedom. Fania treasured the heart—a symbol of the bond that helped them to hope for the best in the face of the worst. She kept it hidden, through the bitter days in the camp and through the death marches. She kept it always.

The books I picked & why

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The Book Thief

By Markus Zusak,

Book cover of The Book Thief

Why this book?

If I were ever forced to choose a “favorite” book, this would be it. I love it. It’s completely unique and imaginative. As I was familiar with Zusak’s other books, I bought it as soon as it came out without knowing what it was about. My breath stopped when I read:

“The question is, what color will everything be at that moment when I come for you? What will the sky be saying?”

My sister had died just six months before. The idea that Death saw colors in all the souls carefully collected gave me great solace.

On top of that, it’s a really, really good story.

Crossing Ebenezer Creek

By Tonya Bolden,

Book cover of Crossing Ebenezer Creek

Why this book?

I love stories that teach me something I didn’t know, even when it’s an ugly truth—especially when it’s an ugly truth. I studied History as an undergrad. I even wrote a paper on Sherman’s March to the Sea, but I’d never heard of Ebenezer’s Creek. In the midst of this shameful episode in the Civil War, Tonya Bolden gives us hope, truth, love, and utter cruelty. As heart-rending as this story is, I wanted to read it again immediately upon finishing it. Its honesty is as important as its poignancy. 

Salt to the Sea

By Ruta Sepetys,

Book cover of Salt to the Sea

Why this book?

Ruta Sepetys writes historical fiction like no one else. All her books are wonderful, however, this one is my favorite. Not only does she write about a little-known event in history, she does it masterfully with short chapters told from four distinct points of view, doling out backstory as if it is a treat rather than something a reader must endure. Yes, the story is fascinating, but it is her craft that makes me reread it with a highlighter in hand. 

Lovely War

By Julie Berry,

Book cover of Lovely War

Why this book?

A love story set during wartime. One might shrug their shoulders as if to say, Ho, hum. But this is a love story unlike any other. Aside from being exquisitely written, filled with stunning beauty and ugly truths, it is, in fact, three love stories: two between two mortal couples set during WWI, and the third, a love triangle among the gods (yes, Olympian gods) set during WWII. What’s ho hum about that? Again, it is the craft Berry wields that intrigues me. How does she tell a historical story from a fantastical point of view? How do the gods serve as intrusive narrators without truly being intrusive? 

Butterfly Yellow

By Thanhhà Lai,

Book cover of Butterfly Yellow

Why this book?

I was in high school when the Viêt Nam War ended. I grew up watching news reports and seeing photographs on the front page of The New York Times. I remember when Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers. I read David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest. I wish there had been books like this one for me to read. I am cheating a tiny bit with this choice as it does not take place during wartime. It is set six years after the Viêt Nam War in Texas, yet is about the ravages of war and how one goes on after unimaginable loss. I love this book because it is exquisitely written. It is equally painful and joyous. And I don’t think you can find a stronger character than Hằng.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in refugees, sibling, and World War 2?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about refugees, sibling, and World War 2.

Refugees Explore 85 books about refugees
Sibling Explore 131 books about sibling
World War 2 Explore 886 books about World War 2

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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