I have a goal of reading all the Caldecott and Newbery award winners each year, and let’s just say I was a little behind on the 2016 Newbery honorees.
The committee helped me out by choosing a picture book, Last Stop on Market Street, as the winner. Check.
We read Roller Girl right away because Lu loves graphic novels. Check.
I’ve heard good things about Echo, one of the honored novels, but it’s sooooo looooonnnnnnnggg. (Yes, I understand this is a terrible reason not to read a book. But in my defense, I’m reading to a 5-year-old with the attention span of a goldfish.)
And finally, when it came to the War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, I wasn’t sure the girls were ready for a novel about war. I was putting it off. When I saw a copy on my niece’s bookshelf over Thanksgiving, I snatched it up and decided to pre-read it by myself. (With 10 days to spare in the year! Sorry, Echo. Maybe next year.)
The War That Saved My Life centers on the life of Ada, a young girl living in World War II-era London with a working-class mother who doesn’t care much for her. In truth, her mother doesn’t care much for anyone, but Ada suffers in particular because she was born with a club foot. Her mother’s shame over Ada’s disability confines the girl to the family’s small apartment. Her younger brother Jamie, in contrast, is allowed free roam of the neighborhood.
Determined to break free from her isolation, Ada begins walking around the apartment during the day to gain strength. When the neighborhood children are evacuated because of the impending bombing of London, Ada seizes her chance and flees to the countryside with Jamie in tow.
The children are placed with Susan, a single woman who is an outcast from her community and grieving the death of her partner several years earlier. Susan is certain that she cannot care for the children, but the women’s committee insists that everyone must do their part. Ada is certain that she can’t survive in the home of another woman who doesn’t want her.
As the war grows more real every day, the trio of new roommates must live together and love one another—despite their flaws and fears. When the children face a return to London, they all must reexamine what family really means.
Kimberly Brubaker Bradley wrote a perfectly age-appropriate novel about war, abuse and isolation in the War that Saved My Life. This is quite a feat, especially because she managed to cover all of those subjects in depth without writing a depressing book.
The novel provides a unique view of wartime Europe from a child’s perspective. Because of its setting in rural England, the war is not the center of the story, although it’s an important element driving the storyline. The characters must navigate the fear of the physical dangers the war brings, but the dominant narrative in the book is their navigation of the emotional (and in the children’s case, physical) abuse and isolation all three main characters have been subjected to by people they loved and trusted.
Bradley succeeds in making the reader love Ada, a girl who refuses to be loved. Young readers will be able to empathize with Ada’s fear, self-loathing and confusion as she explores a life with a new set of rules. It is also hard not to feel affection for Susan, whose belief in justice drives her to care for the children with love. Eventually (and predictably, for older readers) Ada and Susan develop real love for one another.
The book is appropriately rated for children aged nine and older, but that upper limit of 12 years? Nonsense. Even adults should have this on their reading list. I’ll be holding off for a few years for Lu and Bean, but I thoroughly enjoyed this book for myself.