Three new books for young readers—a work of nonfiction, a novel and a unique memoir—offer fascinating insights into World War II, an era that helped shape the world we live in today.
The seeds of World War II were planted during the aftermath of World War I. Harsh financial penalties imposed on Germany, combined with the devastating effects of the Great Depression, contributed to the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party. Andrew Maraniss explores the prewar period for young readers in his masterful Games of Deception, which reveals the little-known story of the first United States Olympic basketball team. They competed in 1936, the year basketball debuted as an Olympic sport—and the year the games were held, amid controversy, in Hitler’s Berlin.
Young readers will likely be unfamiliar with much of this history, including the boycott efforts that surrounded the games, but Maraniss is an effective storyteller who skillfully paints a picture of the past by focusing on individual people and evocative details. Along with the players’ stories, Maraniss also introduces ordinary people who became eyewitnesses to history; these include a German Jewish boy named Al Miller who never forgot what it was like to watch Jesse Owens run.
The 1936 Olympics were, of course, a prelude to the horrors to come, and Maraniss follows his story through to the war’s end. Full-page photographs, a bibliography and a timeline enhance the book. A fantastic afterword traces Maraniss’ research process, including his meeting with 95-year-old Dr. Al Miller, who managed to escape Hitler’s Germany.
Alan Gratz’s latest novel, Allies, zeros in on one of the most dramatic military operations of all time: D-Day, the invasion of Normandy. Gratz has previously combined meticulous research with compelling characters and action-packed scenes in bestselling books such as Refugee, Projekt 1065 and Grenade. Allies is no different, as Gratz once again draws readers into history.
The novel opens with Dee Carpenter riding in a Higgins boat through the rocking waves on his way to Omaha Beach. Dee is a 16-year-old from Philadelphia who has signed up for the U.S. Army with a fudged birth certificate. But readers find out something else at the end of the first chapter: “His real name was Dietrich Zimmermann, and he was German.”
The book also follows Samira, an Algerian girl in the French resistance who is trying to sabotage the German occupation and find her mother, with (she hopes) the help of a fearless little dog. Supporting characters include a Jewish soldier, a Canadian paratrooper and a character based on the famed African American medic Waverly “Woody” Woodson, who was part of the all-black 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion on Omaha Beach.
Allies is timely, not merely because of this year’s 75th anniversary of D-Day but also for its contributions to discussions of how individuals, communities and nations can be allies in today’s world.
Like Waverly Woodson, Ashley Bryan was also on Omaha Beach. Now 96 years old, Bryan has published numerous books for young readers, including the Newbery Honor book Freedom Over Me. Infinite Hope is the extraordinary memoir of this hugely beloved figure in children’s literature. Like many veterans, Bryan has never talked about his military service, so his story may take people by surprise.
When his draft notice arrived in 1943, Bryan was a 19-year-old art student who was already familiar with prejudice. One art school interviewer told him his portfolio was the best the school had seen, but “it would be a waste to give a scholarship to a colored person.” With his teachers’ encouragement, Bryan was accepted to Cooper Union, which judged applicants blind. Even this did not prepare Bryan for what he would experience when he joined the Army. “As a Black soldier, I found myself facing unequal treatment in a war that Blacks hoped would lead our nation closer to its professed goal of equal treatment for all.”
Infinite Hope tells the story of Bryan’s journey as a stevedore in the 502nd Port Battalion through mixed media, with large photographs interspersed with sketches, paintings and excerpts from his diary and letters. The result is both an intimate portrait of Bryan himself and a rare insight into the African American experience of World War II and the invasion of Normandy, where Bryan worked nonstop on Omaha Beach unloading cargo in the months after D-Day. Later, while guarding German prisoners of war in France after the war’s end, Bryan realized the Germans were given more respect than black American soldiers. After arriving home in early 1946, Bryan locked his WWII drawings away and rarely spoke of his experiences.
Infinite Hope makes Bryan’s incredible artwork, created in the midst of war, available for the first time. It is a must-read for young people, parents, educators and anyone interested in World War II. Most of all, it is the work of an inspiring American who truly embodies infinite grace.