I have always loved middle grade historical fiction. Ever since elementary school I’ve enjoyed the escape of visiting a different time and place, of meeting characters who are different than me yet not too different, who live through things we only touched on in history class. I read through all of the Little House, American Girl, and Dear America series by the end of the third grade, at which point I really jumped into the vast body of MG historical fiction. That’s where I found my favorite book in the genre, Bette Greene’s 1973 novel Summer of My German Soldier. Even as plenty of captivating, well-researched historical fiction continues to be released for young readers, this book remains my favorite.
Summer of My German Soldier takes place in a small, racially-tense town in Arkansas during World War II, when our protagonist Patty Bergen is 12 years old. While Patty is on her summer vacation, the War Department opens a Prisoner of War camp in her town to house German prisoners of war. That news is exciting for everyone in the town, but Patty feels lonely rather than excited: all of her friends have gone away to Baptist church camp, leaving Patty, whose family is Jewish, on her own for the summer. She spends a lot of her time earnestly trying to get her mother and father to notice and appreciate her the way they do her little sister, but the family’s black housekeeper is the only person who really pays Patty any attention. When Patty sees Anton, one of the German POWs, escaping from the prison one day, she feels empathy for him–he, too, is alone. She hides him in her secret room above the garage, and as she and Anton talk and become friends, she finally feels what it is like to have someone value her for who she is. During the summer of that unlikely friendship, Patty learns what a person can really be worth. Summer of My German Soldier is in turns infuriating and heartbreaking, and readers cannot help being drawn into the richly-written story with such a vivid historical setting.
One of the things I love most about middle grade historical fiction is that it is never just about the time and place in which the story is set. Sure, Summer of My German Soldier is about life on the homefront during WWII. But it’s also about the racism and religious persecution that were rife on that homefront while soldiers were fighting racism and persecution overseas. Its depths go even further, as the story is also about the difficulty of making true friends, feeling unappreciated by one’s family, and the constant internal struggle that accompanies trying to better oneself. At first glance MG historical fiction may be about just one thing, but readers fall in love with these books because they are about so much more. They make readers realize that the moments in history we learn about in social studies are more than just moments, that the people who lived them felt and struggled with many of the same things that we do today in our vastly different world.
I’ve been happy to see more and more teachers integrating exemplary historical fiction into their lesson plans and assignments. I’ve helped teachers select great titles to read aloud to their classes as part of a history lesson. I’ve helped young readers with school projects pick out a historical fiction book to pair with a biography set in the same time period. There are so many fantastic choices out there to suggest: from this year alone there are Sophia’s War by Avi (Revolutionary War); May B. by Caroline Starr Rose (pioneer era); The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis (Great Depression); A Diamond in the Desert by Kathryn Fitzmaurice and Jump Into the Sky by Shelley Pearsall (WWII); and The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine and Glory Be by Augusta Scattergood (civil rights era). There are shelves and shelves of great books out there that shed new light on every era of history.
But Summer of My German Soldier will always have a place of honor on my bookshelf.
Amy Koester is a children’s librarian at the Corporate Parkway branch of the St. Charles City-County (MO) Library District. She is currently a Round I Middle Grade Fiction judge for the Cybils, and she is on the 2014 Newbery Award Committee. She blogs about books, programs, and librarianship as The Show Me Librarian (http://showmelibrarian.blogspot.com/) and is a regular contributor on the ALSC Blog (http://www.alsc.ala.org/blog/). Find her on Twitter @amyeileenk.