In today’s post: Add these 12 incredible novels set during World War II to your reading list!
So can I brag for a minute? All of my children are finally old enough to play at the park or pool without me hovering right next to them the entire time…which means I’m finally one of those moms that can sit on the side of the park or pool reading a book instead of frantically trying to keep an eye on all the little kids at the same time! I’ve been waiting for this moment for YEARS people!
In celebration, I’m sharing a new book list. I really love well-written historical novels, and I’m especially drawn to books set during the World Wars because there is so much to learn from the people that lived through those difficult times. Today I’ve rounded up my favorite novels set during World War 2 so you guys can find a new book to enjoy while you’re hanging at the park or pool this summer!
Looking for movies instead? Click here for 101 period movies you’re gonna love!
Best World War 2 novels
Ok, books set during wars can be tough, right? If possible, I like to know before I start a book whether it’s going to contain realistic details that may be hard to read or not. So I’ve divided up the books I’m recommending into two categories: those with a realistic or serious focus, and those with a lighter relationship focus. All the books on this list are great, but now you’ll know which ones to pick up first depending on your mood. And bonus: all these book are about women!
Novels about World War 2: Realistic focus
1. Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave
I love great historical novels, so I was looking forward to this book set at the cusp of World War II, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so good, or so impactful. More than any other book I’ve read, I think this novel gave me a glimpse of what it must have actually been like to live through a war that touched everyone around you in a deeply personal way. The overwhelming sadness. The overwhelming tiredness. And the love, and the compassion, and the bravery. And it’s a great love story, too, inspired by the author’s own grandparents. Note: a few very difficult scenes of wartime violence are very tough to read; however I consider this one of the best books I’ve read in the past five years.
2. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
When their spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France, pilot Maddie is able to escape but her friend Verity, a British spy, is arrested by the Gestapo. Verity is given a choice: write a “confession” detailing her mission or suffer torture and death. And so Verity begins writing, detailing her training as a spy and how she met her friend Maddie. While Verity writes, buying herself time, Maddie is also hard at work… This book is absolutely gripping from page one. There are twists and turns I guarantee you won’t see coming, and it’s an absolutely fascinating look at the role women played in British intelligence during the war. The more difficult elements of this book (including torture) are handled well and are not graphic. NOTE: this book is classified as “young adult” but it reads like adult lit to me.
3. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
The Nightingale was published to immediate success in 2015, and if you haven’t read it yet, it’s high time to do so! The book centers around two sisters living in Nazi occupied France during WWII. Once I got past the first 50 pages or so I could not put this book down. I’ve read plenty of books set in this time period, but never one that gives a picture of what life was like for the French citizens during the Nazi Occupation that lasted for much of the war. Both sisters end up fighting the Nazis in their own way, unbeknownst to each other (they’re each trying to protect the other). This is the sort of book that will stay with you for days after you finish. Content note: there is mention of rape, beatings, and concentration camp violence as well as a few strong profanities.
4. Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
Rose is an 18-year-old American working for the ATA in Britain, ferrying planes from one location to another during WWII. Female pilots were not sent on combat missions, but their job was dangerous nonetheless; they often flew planes that had been so heavily damaged in combat they were barely flyable. On one such mission Rose is thrown off course and caught by the Germans, then sent to Ravensbruck, a concentration camp for women. There she meets the “rabbits”, female prisoners who have been experimented on by the Nazi doctors. Many portions of the story are, of course, heartbreaking, although it helps to know from the beginning that Rose survives the camps, and there are also uplifting portions that really celebrate the human spirit. It’s absolutely amazing. NOTE: this is a companion book to Code Name Verity, and like that book it is classified as “young adult” but it reads like adult lit to me.
5. Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah
Winter Garden is a “family history/mystery” novel, alternating between the account of a girl in Leningrad in 1941 and a woman named Anya in 2000. I consider myself somewhat familiar with the major events of World War 2, but I had never even heard of the siege of Leningrad. For nearly 900 days the city was cut off from supplies. Most of the men were gone fighting the war and the women and children were left to fend for themselves, and hundreds of thousands died of starvation. The historical part of the book is tough – it’s just depressing to realize how many people endured such suffering – so it’s nice to alternate with a present day story that isn’t as heavy and includes a bit of mystery. I found the first few chapters a little slow, but keep going – the last few chapters will make you glad you did!
6. Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
Lina is 15 years old in 1941 when Soviet officers burst into her Lithuanian home, tear her family apart, and push her onto a crowded train car with her mother and younger brother. As they travel to an unknown fate in Siberia, Lina uses her talents as an artist to draw messages she hopes will get passed to her father, wherever he may be. When they reach Siberia they are forced to do harsh manual labor under cruel circumstances and Lina clings to her art as a way to hold on to her identity. This book highlights the atrocities committed by Stalin during World War 2, which rival those of the Germans towards the Jews during the same time period. Not to be confused with another novel with a similar name, this book is amazing, enriching, and well worth a read.
Novels about World War 2: Relationship focus
7. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Funny name, completely captivating book! Just after World War 2 ends, Dawsey Adams, a farmer from the British isle of Guernsey, convinces his neighbors to write the stories of their war experience and send them to author Juliet Ashton. Guernsey was the only British land to be occupied by the Germans during the war, so their letters to Juliet are unique and full of rich historical detail. It’s both funny and devastating and it feels absolutely true. Combine all that with lovable quirky characters and an unfolding love story, and you have a book you won’t want to put down.
8. The Chilbury’s Ladies Choir by Jennifer Ryan
In the early days of World War II, the vicar of Chilbury decides to disband the choir because there’s no use having it when all the men are gone anyway. The women of Chilbury have other plans, however, and decide to continue singing even though an all-female choir is unheard of. Against this backdrop, we come to know five women in the choir and see their stories unfold on the homefront: a timid widow who begins to find her own strength, a midwife desperate to keep her crimes from coming to light, a pair of sisters who both love rather “inappropriate” men, and a Jewish refugee with her own secrets. Very nicely written.
9. The Good Pilot Peter Woodhouse by Alexander McCall Smith
As the young men of Britain leave to fight in the war, young women across the country join the “Land Girls” and head out to work on farms to ensure that food production continues. Val Eliot is one of these land girls, and while working on a farm she meets an American pilot named Mike and a Border Collie named Peter Woodhouse. Even though this story is set in the midst of the turbulent events of WWII, it manages to be both sweet and heartwarming.
When Lord Westerham’s youngest daughter, Pheobe, discovers the body of a soldier who fell to his death when his parachute failed, things begin to get complicated. One of Lord Westerham’s older daughters ends up working as a code breaker at Bletchley, while another daughter is involved with the French resistence. Meanwhile, their neighbor and and childhood friend Ben is dispatched by MI-5 to investigate the mysterious parachuter and determine if a spy is in their midst. This mystery has a bit of a Downton Abbey feel and is a period piece, spy novel, and love story all wrapped up into one. Really fantastic read!
11. War Brides by Helen Bryan;
Alice, the daughter of the local vicar, is distraught when her fiancee shows up with an American bride, Evangeline. Elsie is a poor evacuee from London, Tannie is a Jewish girl who has fled the horrors of Europe, and Frances is a wild debutante who’s been sent to the country to stay out of trouble. As the war descends on England, the five women forge a friendship over rationing, the threat of Nazi invasion, and a traitor in their midst. I really expected this to be a fluffy romance, but it turned out to be a rich story with a wealth of historical detail.
12. Secrets of a Charmed Life by Susan Meissner
Emmy Downtree is just 15 when she and her younger sister are evacuated from their home in London to escape the bombs that rain down nightly during World War II. They, like thousands of other children, leave their parents and are sent to the country to live with whomever is willing to provide shelter and safety. But Emmy knows her dreams of becoming a wedding dress designer will go nowhere so far from London, and so she sneaks back to the city, followed by her young sister Julia. If she’d known they would arrive on the first day of the Blitz she may have made a different choice, but instead she must live with the unforeseen consequences. This is a story about love and loss, guilt and forgiveness, but it still manages to maintain a light, summer-read feel.