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2016 Newbery Honor Award Winner The War that Saved My Life

The War that Saved My Life
2016 Newbery Honor Award Winner
Written by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Published in 2015 by Dial Books for Young Readers
Grades 4-8
ISBN: 978-0-8037-4081-5
Book Review
Ada is a ten-year-old girl born with a twisted foot. She has never left her one-room apartment or felt sunshine or seen grass. Abhorred, abused, and constantly shamed by her mother, Ada is isolated from the world because of her foot and led to believe she is unworthy of love and belonging and incapable of learning. Acclaimed author Kimberly Brubaker Bradley powerfully weaves historical details about World War II in England into this fast-paced, heart-wrenching historical fictional narrative. Through the voice of Ada, we are transported to another time and place as we are entrusted as readers to grapple with the traumatic events of Ada’s life. Readers quickly realize, though, that Ada is a multidimensional character driven most of all by her own determination to change her life story. As children are being evacuated from London in anticipation of air raids, Ada draws on her courage despite great physical pain and joins her younger brother, Jaime, to board a train to the country. Readers will find themselves rooting for Ada as she embarks on a new life where hope itself feels like a dangerous thing. Ripe with opportunities for empathy building, The War that Save my Life is sure to captivate students as a read-aloud, text club selection, or independent reading text. It is also a welcome addition to historical fiction units of study or as a compliment to social studies investigations of life for children during World War II. Finally, Ada herself serves as a model for us all as we engage in the human struggle to know our own self-worth.
Teaching Ideas / Invitations for Your Classroom:
Grades 4-8
Research World War II Across Modes. Throughout the story, support students to keep detailed notes on the historical elements woven throughout the book that explain what life was like in England during World War II. Support students to notice the impact the war has on all of the characters but also how economic disparities create marked differences. Research with students the evacuation of 800,000 children from London because of bombings during the 1940s. Conduct a Google image search to find photographs of evacuees and posters that advocate for mothers to send children out of London. Listen to primary source audiofiles from the BBC about World War II and the evacuation. Encourage open conversation about what students see, hear, think, and feel about the images and recordings. Further investigate the BBC site for primary source documents including letters from evacuees and parents during the war. Read more about the Dunkirk Evacuation described at the end of the book at the Eyewitness History site, which includes a map of the escape of British soldiers from France. As students conduct further independent research based on their interests of this time period, consider multiple modes for them to share what they have learned including expository writing, letter writing, mock interviews, audiorecording, and digital storytelling.
War as a Metaphor. As Ada reminds us, “There are all kinds of wars” (p.3). Consider with students the ways in which war manifests itself in multiple ways throughout the story. In particular, guide students to consider why Bradley would choose to set the story during World War II as a means of helping readers consider the cataclysmic battles Ada experiences with her mother and with herself. What are the battles Ada fights? What are the outcomes? How would Ada’s story be different if she lived in a different time or place? Would her story have been as impacting for us as readers if World War II was not part of the context?  How does the title of the story complicate our understandings of war?
Semantic Mapping to Build a Theory about Characters. Ada, Jaime, their mother, Susan, Grimes, Maggie, and Lady Thornton are complex characters with multiple identities and interests. Support students to come to know a character of their choosing more closely through semantic mapping throughout their reading of the book. As they build their maps, encourage students to consider questions including: What are the character’s traits, desires, and struggles? What matters to them the most? How do we know? What is his/her social location and how does it impact their experiences? What are the multiple roles they play in their families and communities? How does the character change or not change over time? Have students periodically present their growing theories about characters and how their maps are changing as they learn more about them.
Text-to-Self Exploration. Ada struggles throughout the book to know her own self-worth. She questions whether hope is possible and even safe. In the end, her recognition of her own vulnerability becomes one of her greatest strengths. She is willing to engage in complex questions about herself and to open her heart to her caretaker, Susan’s, unexpected love. Support students to consider the ways in which they find it difficult or easy to experience the uncertain, to take risks, and to experience emotional exposure. Allow for students to independently and safely write about when they feel love, belonging, joy, and creativity but also when they feel afraid, disappointed, and alone. Support students who are ready to share their thoughts and experiences, but also let students know that their thinking and writing can safely be for them alone. Finally, share with students Theodore Roosevelt’s words about daring greatly. What are the ways Ada “dares greatly”? What are the ways they each do?
Writing Leads that Shock Readers. Guide students through a repeated and close reading of the first page of the book. In what ways does Bradley lead with shock? What is the impact of her word choices? How does dialogue impact the shock value? How do the characters’ actions further our visualization of the traumatic events of Mam shouting at and hitting Ada? Explore with students why Bradley may have chosen to lead through a shocking moment. As students craft narratives throughout the year, return to Bradley’s lead as a mentor text for their own writing. Further support students to consider when adding shock value does not necessarily improve the content of their writing.
World War II Literature Study. Gather other text selections that take place during World War II for students to read in text clubs. Of particular interest may be Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, A Faraway Island by Annika Thor, The Boy on the Wooden Box by Leon Leyson,  Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli, Dash by Kirby Larson, Willow Run by Patricia Reilly Giff, The Boy Who Dared by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, and The Boy in Striped Pajamas by John Boyne. See Goodreads Listopia for many more selection possibilities. Have clubs present the book’s plot, themes, mood, and what they learn from the conflicts characters experience to better understand the historical events of World War II. Across the presentations support students to understand the war from the point of view of the protagonists based on their perspective and position including that of soldiers on the front lines, children and families, and Jewish people in hiding or concentration camps.

Thematic Investigation: Duet Reading. As Ada leaves her home and her mother’s controlling grip on her life, she comes to find freedom through unexpected means. Most notably, Ada teaches herself to ride Butter, a neglected pony on her new farm. As she learns to ride and teaches Butter to jump higher obstacles, she feels at her most free. Likewise, in Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell, the main character, Wilhelmina (Will), rides her horses with abandon on the Zimbabwe farm where she lives. Engage students in a duet model by reading across these two books supporting students to consider the similarities and differences between Ada and Wilhelmina and the ways control and freedom play out in their lives. In addition, consider with students the ways family and identity can be explored to better understand the overlapping themes of these two books.  Have students share in partnership or small group the connections they notice across the two books.
Author Study: Historical Fiction Across Time and Place.  Gather other books by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley to better understand historical fiction at its best. In particular, Jefferson’s Sons, The Lacemaker and the Princess, and For Freedom: The Story of a French Spyinclude historical details woven into fast-paced narratives. In each of the stories, the characters call into question previously held beliefs about themselves. Consider with students Bradley’s literary techniques across books including her use of description, dialogue, narration, voice, and dialect. Support students to name the ways human conflict, tension, and mood create a more powerful historically-oriented story? What techniques can they borrow from her work to craft their own historical fiction pieces that are character-driven and gripping for readers? Encourage students to take to the page and try writing a small scene of their own based on the historical context of one of Bradley’s works or of their own choosing.
Sharing Your Opinion through Writing and Speaking: The ALAs. The War that Saved My Life was one of the recipients of the Newbery Honor Award from the American Library Association (ALA) for 2016. Brainstorm with students the criteria the ALA Awards Committee might use when evaluating books as contenders. View the ALA website as a class to learn more about the many awards the committee grants and to learn about past and present winners. Do they agree that The War that Saved My Life deserved the Newbery Honor award? Why or why not? Do they think it should have won the Newbery itself rather than the Honor Award? Read aloud the 2016 Newbery winner, Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña and have students draw comparisons about the quality of the texts.  Gather recent Newbery and Newbery Honor Award winners for text clubs or independent reading such as Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan, The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, Flora and Ulysses, The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin, and Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool.  Create an ALA comment board for students to share their opinions throughout the year about award-winning books. Finally, have students share their opinions in writing by crafting and sending letters to the ALA that detail their support for books selected or to challenge the ALA to consider other books they feel are deserving.
Critical Literacy
Conflicts of Class. Class plays a dominant role is the lives of Ada, Jamie, their mother, and other evacuees in this story such as their friend, Stephen White. What is the impact of class on their lives? Support students to notice that despite having a job, Ada and Jamie’s mother struggles to provide basic necessities for her family like nutritious meals and warm clothing in winter. Encourage students to share their thoughts about this in partnership or in small groups.  How do class divides further complicate Ada and Jamie’s arrival to the country?  Have students extend their thinking to the class structures that exist in their own communities and nationally. Support students to find out more about the impact of class today through interviews, online research, and through their own reflective writing.
Further Investigation
Online Resources
Author’s Site
Author’s Video Discussion of the Book
Penguin Press Educator’s Guide
ALA Newbery Site
ALA 2016 Award Winners Listing
BBC World War II Evacuation Site
Eyewitness History: The Evacuation at Dunkirk
Dunkirk Evacuation Footage

Bartoletti, S.C. (2008). The boy who dared. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Boyne, J. (2007). The boy in striped pajamas. Oxford, United Kingdom: David Fickling Books.  
Bradley, K.B. (2013). Jefferson’s sons: A founding father’s secret children. New York, NY: Puffin Books.
Bradley, K.B. (2005). For freedom: The story of a French spy. New York, NY: Laurel Leaf.
Bradley, K.B. (2009). The lacemaker and the princess. New York, NY: Margaret K. McElderry Books.
Giff, P.R. (2007). Willow run. New York, NY: Yearling.

Larson, K. (2014). Dash. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Leyson, L. (2015). The boy on the wooden box: How the impossible became possible…on Schindler’s list. New York, NY: Antheneum. 
Lowry, L. (1989). Number the stars. Boston, MA: HMH Books for Young Readers.
Rundell, K. (2014). Cartwheeling in thunderstorms. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
Spinelli, J. (2010). Milkweed. New York, NY: Random House. 

Thor, A. (2011). A faraway island. New York, NY: Yearling.
Katie Cunningham About Katie Cunningham

Katie is an Associate Professor of Literacy and English Education at Manhattanville College. Her work focuses on children’s literature, joyful literacy methods, and literacy leadership. Katie is the author of Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning and co-author of Literacy Leadership in Changing Schools. Her book Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness will be released September 2019. She is passionate about the power of stories to transform lives.