The best books about kids who have lived through difficult times

little girl reading a book in front of window

By Laura Catherine Hanby Hudgens

Our children are facing yet another school year filled with challenges most of us never imagined for them—because most of us have never imagined a world where a global pandemic would be our reality year after year. But here we are.

We are entering our third year of pandemic schooling. For some kids, that means wearing a mask all day again this year. For others, it might mean getting sick or facing multiple quarantines. There will likely be some school closures. Because of COVID (a phrase I am so, so tired of using), some of our children will miss out on activities they enjoy. They might have assigned seating in class or at lunch that will prevent them from sitting with and socializing with some of their friends. There will be limitations and the ever-present threat of someone they love getting sick. After a brief period of hope last spring, we seem, at least in some parts of the country, to be right back where we started at the beginning of last school year. 

The good news is that kids can do hard things. They’ve been showing us that since March of 2020. As a teacher, I fall back on literature to remind my students of that. In fact, historically speaking, children have faced far greater challenges than masks and social distancing.

This isn’t to minimize the real struggles our kids have faced in this pandemic age. Some have sacrificed time with grandparents or missed out on important milestones and rites of passage. Others have lost family members to COVID. However, there is a growing sense of frustration and anger over less significant hardships (though they are hardships nonetheless) like wearing masks or limiting extra-curricular activities. 

It’s in these struggles that parents and teachers can help set the tone. We can model fear and despair. Or we can remind our kids (and ourselves) that eventually, all pandemics run their course and that this restricted way of living isn’t forever. It’s really up to us. 

Literature is a great way to put our pandemic struggles into perspective. Reading stories to and with our children about other kids who have lived through difficult periods in history can help strengthen their resolve and even make them grateful for the many comforts that make pandemic life bearable. The list of biographies and historical fiction novels for children and young adults is practically endless. Here are a few featuring children and teens who overcame difficult times. Their stories can serve as an effective springboard for conversations with our kids about the struggles and blessings of these challenging times we are living in now.

Picture Books

A New Coat for Anna by Harriet Ziefert: A delightful story set in post-World War II Europe about a mother’s love and her tireless efforts to secure the material necessary to make a new coat for her daughter.

The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander: Inspiring and beautifully illustrated, this gorgeous book is a poetic tribute to heroes of the Civil Rights movement. 

The Proudest Blue by Ibtihag Muhammad: Little Faizah is excited about the first day of school. After all, she has a new backpack and light-up shoes. And it’s her big sister’s first day of hijab. But Faizah quickly learns that the hijab is not necessarily considered beautiful in the eyes of many of their schoolmates. 

Angela and the Baby Jesus by Frank McCourt: Angela knows what it feels like to be cold and hungry, so when she sees the baby Jesus lying in the manger outside Saint Joseph’s church, she decides to take him home and keep him warm. In McCourt’s heartwarming and heartbreaking tale, we see true compassion brought about by personal suffering.

Middle Grades Literature (ages 8-12)

Refugee by Allen Gratz:  Refugee tells the stories of three children, each living in unimaginably difficult circumstances. There is Josef, a Jewish boy trying to escape Nazi Germany with his mother and young sister; Isabel a young girl desperately trying to reach America when Castro’s oppressive policies force her family from their home in Cuba, and Mahmoud, a Syrian boy helping his family flee war-torn Aleppo. 

The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder: During the brutal Dakota territory winter of 1880-81, Laura Ingalls and her family and the little town of De Smet face starvation as they struggle to survive blizzard after blizzard. Though charming and heartwarming, The Long Winter is truly a story of hardship and resilience. 

Number the Stars by Lois Lowery: During World War II, the Danish resistance smuggled almost the entire Jewish population of that nation to safety in Sweden. In Number the Stars, ten-year-old Anna and her family take part in their country’s daring and selfless act of bravery when they agree to hide her best friend Ellen Rosen from the Nazis scouring the land to “relocate” Danish Jews. 

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park: Based on a true story, Park’s novel tells the story of two eleven-year-old Sudanese children struggling to survive the unrest and hardships that plague their small African nation. 

The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis: In 1963, when the Watson family decides to visit their grandmother in Alabama, they have no idea what they are in for. But the Watsons face even the darkest moments together. 

Young Adult Literature (ages 12-18)

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys: Sepety’s award-winning novel is based on the true, but little-known story of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a passenger ship attempting to carry over 10,000 refugees to safety outside Nazi Germany. In this heart-wrenching story , four fictionalized characters face the horrors of war and of one of the greatest maritime disasters in history.

Little Women by Louis May Alcott: While generally thought of as the heartwarming and charming tale of four close-knit sisters, Little Women also portrays the material and emotional hardships faced by families of Civil War soldiers and delightfully tells how this family of women helps each other meet these challenges with determination and selflessness. 

Fever 1793 by Lauren Halse Anderson: In 1793, Mattie is a typical young girl with dreams and plans for the future. But when disease breaks out in her city, everything changes. She is forced to flee, but where? 

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: After losing her younger brother, Liesel’s mother leaves her in the care of a foster family—a family that is willing to take her in and to hide a Jew in their basement. But Max isn’t the only secret Liesel is keeping. She is a thief who steals not only apples but also words. 

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: It has never been easy for Starr Carter to balance life between her two worlds—her exclusive private school and her poor, inner-city neighborhood. But when Starr witnesses the shooting of her friend by a police officer, the rage and confusion of both worlds start to collide, and Starr has to decide where she stands. 

Obviously, difficult times call for distraction and carefree fun as well, so parents would be wise to also encourage a large selection of funny books for kids and teenagers as well as other genres, like mystery or fantasy, that offer a bit of an escape. In fact, since reading is known to reduce stress and increase empathy, there’s no better time than now, as we face the possibility of more pandemic-related difficulties, to curl up with a good book (any book!) and encourage our kids to do the same.

As a life-long reader, literacy teacher, and mom of four, Laura has spent her life loving and sharing children’s and YA literature. She writes (and reads) from her home in the Arkansas Ozarks. Read more from Laura here.

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