“The British were so magnanimous to welcome us foreigners… truly showing a phenomenal humanity.”
These words were part of the inspiration for this enthralling and immensely thoughtful book set in World War 2. They were said by a woman in her nineties, a former Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, who wanted to thank Brighton College for taking her in more than 70 years ago. The sentence struck Helen Peters more forcibly in view of the prejudice and hostility sometimes displayed towards refugees today. Anna at War tells the moving story of a twelve year old girl who, thanks to her parents’ bravery, escapes to England just before the outbreak of war as part of the Kindertransport rescue effort. Inspired by real events and people this is a remarkable story of bravery and resilience but also of compassion and friendship that will engage and inspire young readers.
Life in 1930s Nazi Germany has become increasingly difficult for Jewish families such as Anna’s and the tension and fear have gradually increased, culminating in the dreadful events of Kristallnacht, following which Anna’s father is temporarily sent to a concentration camp. When he is released he and his wife make the heartbreaking decision to send Anna alone to safety in England. Helen Peters’ description of both the terrifying night when Anna’s father was taken and her subsequent journey by train out of Germany is utterly gripping. The terror experienced by Anna has she hides in the wardrobe as soldiers ransack their home, the raw grief of the farewell at the station and the mounting fear on the train journey are conveyed with an eye to the age of her readers and yet with great emotion. Throughout all of this we are beginning to appreciate that Anna is a remarkable and resilient character.
Once in England Anna is fostered by the kindly Mr and Mrs Dean and lives on their farm with their daughter Molly and her younger brother, Frank. Life in the Kent countryside is very different to Anna’s previous experiences and yet she is determined in her desire to make the best of things and to try to enable her parents to join her eventually. The reader accompanies Anna in her attempts to adapt to English schooling, life on the farm and making friendships in an atmosphere of growing fear of the enemy as war is declared in England. The fears that Anna thought she had left behind her in Germany are now real again and she finds herself caught up in a web of secrets and betrayal. The subsequent adventure is one with a lasting impact and is of such extreme tension that children reading will be utterly enthralled.
Historical fiction for children gives a voice to those who are no longer able to tell their stories and they are stories that need to be told. Helen Peters has managed to balance the need to explain a harrowing and deeply sad period of history with the desire to make it accessible to a young audience. The various strands to Anna’s story do not all have happy endings but this is important in order to maintain historical accuracy. However this is a story of hope and determination which celebrates the bravery of the parents who sent their children away and the impressive manner in which their children responded to the opportunity. The author introduces the book with a school project for which children are researching life in World War 2 which is a neat and appropriate way of enticing young readers in to the story and provides a link to today’s familiar world.
Anna at War has now joined my list of favourite children’s books of the year so far. Combining history and adventure in a story that is both relevant and relatable for today’s children this is a compulsive and enjoyable read. It was published on 4th July and is available in all good bookshops or online The cover illustration is by Daniela Terrazzini.
Thank you very much to Nosy Crow Publishers who kindly provided my review copy.
If you are looking for other children’s books set during World War 2 I can recommend D-Day Dog by Tom Palmer, Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll and the classic, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr.