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The War That Saved My Life

9780803740815_p0_v2_s192x300If there’s any book that we’ve given short shrift to this past year, then perhaps it’s THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE, a popular favorite–it dominated our Top Five Tally and is ranked second on the Goodreads Poll–has also generated great buzz (three starred reviews translated into three best of the year lists), and just kind of feels like a Newbery book in many ways.

I’ve recruited Valerie McCurdy to give the book a fuller treatment here on Heavy Medal.  Valerie McCurdy is an up-and-coming Youth Services Librarian in Florida. She has a background in STEM education having worked as a science museum educator, and has worked with underprivileged and at risk youth since she was seventeen. Valerie is currently my mentee in the ALSC mentoring program. One of her goals is to start a blog about YS Librarianship, and this is a step in that direction.

If you’re anything like me, you may have come across “The War That Saved My Life” this year and thought, ‘Oh no, not another World War II book for kids.’ Well, I’m here to tell you that this is not just another WWII book. While war was the vehicle with which Bradley drove her characters together, the heart of the book is about two children – Ada and Jamie – that strive to overcome disability (clubfoot), poverty, neglect and the inherent distrust that comes with facing these obstacles. In the vein of books like “Wonder” and “El Deafo” I was glad to see the narrator of this book as a believable ten-year-old girl with a physical affliction and a strong character. Ada’s narration appeals to any child that may feel stupid or left out because she is different, while her inner thoughts and the development of her character reinforce that her “bad foot’s a long way from [her] brain. (p. 277)” Despite a few bumps in the road the reader can invest in Ada’s journey from never having seen grass to becoming a local hero, without thinking that Ada is simple minded or age inappropriate.

In her writing, Bradley demonstrates a profound understanding of a child that affects disinterest to avoid false hope. Ada’s story offers a unique glimpse into the mind of such a child, and into how she learns to overcome these affectations once she finally feels loved and accepted. I think this book is an excellent contender for the Newbery. However, if I had one request to make to the author, I would have liked more conflict between Ada and her mother near the end of the book before the story resolved itself. Call me crazy considering all of the trials Ada and Jaime faced in this story, but I felt a sense of unfinished business when the story appeared to wrap up in a neat little bow. I am glad Ada and Jaime got a happy ending, but as a reader I felt there was still danger that their happy ending could be taken from them given the way things were left. All in all, however, I am happily going to recommend this book to readers in my library. I look forward to your thoughts on this book.

I’ll chime in first.  I know several people mentioned they were looking forward to a review of this book on Disability in Kid Lit.  Did that review ever happen?



Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says

    This is one of my favorites this year, and Valerie gets to what I appreciate most in Ada’s inner-voice. Though I’m long due a re-read and have a fuzzy memory for the details at this point, I recall being surprised, but convinced, at how swiftly Ada’s encounter with her mother went, and that it felt necessary to Ada’s moving on. Ada is still a child, and giving the time-period and setting this seemed realistic.

  2. Mary G. Marshall says

    I haven’t read this book yet, but I am certainly motivated to read it from Valerie ‘ s review. It appears to be just the book to recommend to all those fans of El Deafo and Wonder.

  3. What really impressed me with this title is Bradley’s ability to bring us into the mind of Ada. There were many moments in the book when Ada reacts wildly to her new surroundings and to the sudden kindness, security, and attempts at understanding that are completely foreign to her experience. For this reader, in those moments, I was both a bit frustrated with Ada – because she was clearly reacting negatively to very positive changes in her life – and completely understanding of her reaction because of the way Bradley reveals Ada’s own fears and insecurities. It’s a difficult thing to describe, and I don’t know if I’m doing it justice. In short, I think Bradley goes beyond simply telling us Ada’s story and really succeeds in illuminating Ada’s growth on a very intimate level. I read this back in January, and that aspect of the writing has stayed with me after only one read.

  4. Nice review, Valerie! I read this quite a while ago, and while I do remember enjoying quite a bit more than I expected to (I admittedly went into it expecting guidance councilor fiction and it definitely didn’t feel that way to me), I had problems with the ending. Nina, I feel like maybe we talked – albeit very briefly – about the ways we viewed the ending differently. Overall, though, I would put this in my top 10.

    And Jonathan, I just went to Disability in Kidlit and searched the archives… they’ve done no review of this book that I can find.

  5. It has been a while since my initial read through of this one, but the aspect Chelsea brings up is one that has stuck with me – that portrayal of a child who has been through trauma, and the incredible insight into her thought process as she reacts “wildly”. It’s for that insight into a viewpoint that I don’t believe we’ve seen portrayed before at such a skillful level that I’m willing as a reader to forgive minor quibbles about how quickly she learns or the “heroism” plot line. Another aspect I appreciated was the depth of those adults with whom Ada interacts regularly throughout the story. I particularly recall a day that Susan spends entirely in bed as an example of the ways that the adult characters’ own struggles are deftly shown through Ada’s perspective in a way that adds authenticity and richness to the story being told. But it’s the insight into Ada’s experiences and reactions to “nice” things that make me want to hand this title to anyone and everyone who works with foster youth.

    • Valerie McCurdy says

      Amanda- I completely agree on both points. I loved getting to see how Ada reacted to things in her mind juxtaposed to her outward reactions, and how different those two expressions could be, and yet very believably different given Ada’s background and circumstances. And the “authenticity and richness” of the adult characters certainly made Ada’s story resonate with readers of all ages. Children certainly see and internalize the behavior of the adults around them, and it was nice that Bradley didn’t make Susan a flawless heroine.

    • Eric Carpenter says

      I’m not sure the newbery criteria allows a committee member to ignore quibbles because said committee member appreciates the content of the story. When I read the criteria, I see instructions to ignore the story and focus on how well the story is told. Whether one likes a story or appreciates it for providing an “insight into a viewpoint that I don’t believe we’ve seen portrayed before at such a skillful level” doesn’t allow one to ignore the terms and definitions laid out in the criteria. This is an award for distinguished contribution to literature not an award for the book we’d most like to recommend to readers.
      I think the flaws in this book (well enumerated in the earlier post) are much more numerous than in other historical fiction titles (Hired Girl especially) we’ve seen this year.

  6. Valerie McCurdy says

    Eric – I disagree. In pointing out that the book provides “insight into a viewpoint that I don’t believe we’ve seen portrayed before at such a skillful level” as you mention, I believe we have discussed/ are discussing the following Newbery criteria:

    1. The book displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations.
    2.Interpretation of the theme or concept
    3.Delineation of characters
    4.Appropriateness of style

    At least that was my aim. I think this book is a distinguished contribution to literature based on the above criteria, and stands out from other historical fiction titles because of its uniquely rich and diverse characters.

    • Eric Carpenter says

      All the criteria mentioned above have to do with the how and not the what. That is how the theme or concept is interpreted not what the theme is. The diversity of a books characters isn’t relevant to the criteria. The diversity of the characters in a book is a great reason to recommend a book to your patrons but not the reason to award it a newbery (at least based on the criteria as written).
      Also I don’t think we can recognize what we have or haven’t seen before unless. Since the committee can only consider books from the current year.

      • Eric, your point is well made. Looking at what I appreciate in terms of the criteria, I would say that it is the mastery in the delineation of characters, particularly its main character, that is rising to the level of distinguished in my recollection. I agree that the committee must consider its quibbles, and weigh them against the pros and cons of the other books on the table. I need to reread this one, but I suspect that most if not all of my first read-through “quibbles” can be dismissed by examining my bias as an adult reader. For a child reader, the “local hero” storyline may not be as implausible, and it certainly serves a purpose in the story, setting up the impact of those final scenes.

  7. I did like this book for all the reasons stated above…you really get into Ada and her voice carries you through. I had some issues — the author is American and to my mind the setting in WWII Britain does not come off accurately. For instance, Americanisms like “crazy” for “mad” (from the boy Ada meets on the bus.) Or that Susan has no daily help…middle-class women just did not get by without some form of servant, even a daily woman…they just weren’t trained for it. And cleaning/cooking/laundry in those days was way more labor than it is today. I think the author underestimates this. However, that is the historical fiction geek in me, otherwise I liked it, although I did think the final chapters were hurried. However, I’m not quite sure its Newbery standard because of this.

    • Valerie McCurdy says

      LCanon- I agree that overall I found Ada’s and other characters’ voices more American than English, though I was not able to put it into words as well as you did. Thank you for articulating this. I think a little more attention to detail regarding the historical and geographical setting would surely have made this a stronger contender for the Newbery.

    • I just reread this and appreciated it even more than my first time through. Ada is a fabulous character, beautifully drawn. I’m a fan of cozy mysteries set in small British villages and even though there is no mystery here, there is that cozy quality — the various people in the village and such — Susan and the others are skillfully rendered. Story arc is very well done too. Yes, the ending is abrupt and fairytalish (Susan wandering bombed out buildings in London!), but the rest is so strong I didn’t mind.

      Having been alerted by some of the comments here I wondered if the uneven Britishisms would bother me as that sort of thing often does when I read. I noticed “crazy” because it was mentioned here and the repeated use of “okay” as it seemed more American than British, especially for that time. I also did wonder about some of the historical texture. At one point, for instance, Ada cooks Jaimie sausages that she notes are mostly oatmeal with a bit of meat and that she didn’t want to think about what the meat was. Having spent time in England in the 50s and 60s I can say that the food left a lot to be desired and I would hate to think about what where in the horrible sausage rolls I often had to eat (as there was nothing else). I can’t imagine that Ada, given her upbringing, would worry much about what sort of meat was in the sausage. But I think that is me quibbling.

      I am not sure why, but this was a much more satisfying read for me personally than another work we are looking at set during the same time period, Echo. Probably because of that taste I mentioned earlier for cozy mysteries.

  8. I read this book back in September at the behest of one of my students. I didn’t expect to like it, let alone adore it. The ending is slightly pat (but a well-deserved happy ending), but I found Ada’s voice the truly distinguished element of the novel. I was exasperated by Ada, yet I couldn’t help but cheer her on. There is so much grit and fortitude in her character, and I found her actions authentic.

    I also loved the subtlety of Susan’s relationship with a woman. Artfully done, Bradley!

    Will this book win the Newbery? Probably not. Too many tall trees this year. Could it win an honor? I hope.

    Will it win the Schneider? Please oh please oh please please please!

  9. I listened to the audiobook of this and loved it. I appreciated the deft handling of really heavy themes, the well-rounded character development, prose that was beautiful and, at times, almost poetic, and especially the perspective of the story being told in flashback by an older Ada. There is a lot that happens in the book that is unsaid but it’s written in way that it doesn’t have to be. That’s good writing.

  10. Jonathan, thanks for coming back to this title. It is still in my top five, and I truly hope it wins at least an honor. The criticism that makes the best points for no medal in my mind is the Americanization factor. I so love the characters Ada, Susan, Jamie – and all the villagers and though the ending is a bit rushed, it still rings true. And as Joe says, well-done Bradley for Susan’s relationship, handled so gracefully.

  11. I was very moved by this book, and it takes a lot to get to me like that. Ada’s character is so strong in her stubbornness and hope, but especially in her resistance to Susan and the other good things coming into her life. Susan and Ada’s relationship in all its wrestling and misunderstanding really powers the plot, as well. As for the pacing of the encounter with the mother at the end, I would say that Ada’s second escape makes a compelling counterpoint to the first escape, and it works because now she KNOWS she needs to get out fast, before she’s stuck forever. The pacing also seems to fit because of the chaos that follows with the bombing. I’m not sure it’s possible to find a book without the quibble factor, but for me the storytelling as well as the character building in The War That Saved My Life were especially compelling. I put it down after the first time I read it and said, “This might not get the Newbery, but it should at least get an Honor.” I got my book club to read it a few months ago!

  12. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says

    Another nice touch in the book is the exploration of Otherness. Obviously, Ada’s clubfoot gets the most attention, but Jamie’s left-handedness and Susan’s sexuality also address this theme. I listened to the audiobook which was read with an English accent so it was hard to pick up on this authenticity quibble.

    While I still think THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE is the fourth best historical fiction book (and that’s probably the biggest reason why it didn’t make our shortlist), I also think it could be much easier to build consensus around than ECHO, THE HIRED GIRL, and GONE CRAZY IN ALABAMA. It’s obviously a very strong year for historical fiction (and dismissing it as only the fourth best historical fiction book could also be tantamount to saying that it’s the fourth best book overall).

    I’m very good at telling the committee what they should pick, but not very good at predicting what they will pick. But if I had to place a bet on a single book that would be sporting a sticker come January, I think this might be one of the sager bets I could wager.

    This one will not win the Scott O’Dell Award since that requires an American setting, but what will win the O’Dell? THE HIRED GIRL skews a bit older than what they’ve typically recognized. A third of ECHO is set in Germany. GONE CRAZY would make Williams-Garcia a repeat winner for the same series. Hmmm.

  13. OK so after reading all the comments about The War That Saved My Life I just started it. First of all as I tell my kids in class all the time I am so WWII’ed out so I was holding out. I am literally 15 pages in and this mother..good God! Someone tell me to keep reading!!

  14. Just finished!!! Really really loved it. Man that mother! I think it could be an honor book for sure. Still think Echo might win gold. So glad I read it. That Ada is such a great character and I loved Susan. Can’t wait to pass it in to my 5th grade class.

  15. Hannah Mermelstein says

    I just asked the Disability in Kids Lit folks about the review of The War That Saved My Life, and they said it will be coming out this weekend with a couple other reviews about books with award buzz. Looking forward to it!


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