World War II might be the most written-about period in literature. Within this subgenre (because at this point, I believe it can be well and truly considered a specific subgenre of historical fiction), there is another… sub-subgenre? Mini genre? That is, World War II books about books. Whether they are set in libraries or bookstores, whether they star book lovers, booksellers, or librarians, there are many books set during World War II and immediately afterwards are, in essence, love letters to the written word.
There are some problems with the abundance of World War II fiction, as illustrated in this excellent article by fellow Rioter Senjuti Patra. One that stands out to me is that it is largely Eurocentric and white. This has begun to change: think Sisters in Arms by Kaia Alderson, or When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka. However, the subgenre as a whole is still so white as to be blinding. I don’t suppose that authors of color aren’t writing about this period, so I have to wonder about the publishing industry’s reception. More to the point here: if finding books set in World War II by authors of color was difficult, finding books about books set in, or during, or around World War II by authors of color was painful. After hours of research, I could only find three.
Hopefully, next time I put together one such list it won’t take hours of research, and more voices will be highlighted.
The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin
Grace Bennett has always dreamed of moving to London, but doing so on the brink of war wasn’t part of the plan. Now, having found a job at old bookshop Primrose Hill, Grace will learn the power of storytelling for bringing a grieving community together.
The Library of Legends by Janie Chang
Although set during the WWII period, this novel doesn’t concern itself with it. Instead, it’s set in the Second Sino-Japanese War: university student Hu Lian and her classmates flee the city of Nanking, and undertake the arduous and dangerous journey to China’s northern provinces. They’re not alone: they carry with them the Library of Legends, a 500 year-old collection of myths and legends.
The Book of Lost Names by Kristin Harmel
In 1942, Eva Traube Abrams escaped from Paris after her father, a Polish Jew, was arrested. She became embroiled in the resistance, forging identity documents for Jewish children escaping to Switzerland. But Eva can’t bring herself to completely forget those children’s names: instead, she and the mysterious Rémy, keep records in the Book of Lost Names. Sixty-five years later, Eva sees a photo of the book in the magazine.
The Bookseller’s Secret by Michelle Gable
Another dual timeline story, this book is split between 1942 and present time. It presents a fictionalized Nancy Mitford, exploring both her work managing the Heywood Hill bookshop and her writing. Eighty years later, blocked novelist Katie Cabot might find the answers she’s looking for in a long-lost manuscript written by Mitford.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
One may not think of a gravedigger’s handbook as reading material for most, but that’s what ignites Liesel’s love of books. After finding it by her brother’s graveside, she falls in love with reading: soon, she’s stealing books from various places, including Nazi book-burnings. But living in 1939 Germany is not easy, especially when your family is hiding a Jewish person in their basement.
Love in the Library by Maggie Tokuda-Hall, illustrated by Yas Imamura
Based on a real story, this picture book tells the story of Tama and George. Forced into a concentration camp for Japanese Americans, the two meet in the camp’s library where she works and finds solace in. Soon, Tama must wonder: is George frequenting the tiny library for the books… or for her?
The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles
Yet another double timeline novel, the book is split between 1939 Paris and 1983 Montana. In the former, librarian Odile Souchet joins the Resistance with the best weapon at her disposal: books. In the latter, teenager Lily finds herself fascinated by her mysterious elderly neighbor.
The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali
Note: This doesn’t take place during WWII, but is about book lovers during wartime.
A few years after the end of the war, Roya falls in love with Mr. Fakhri’s neighborhood stationery shop. An idealistic teenager, Roya finds her place amidst the books and pen and ink. Not one to miss out on a chance to play matchmaker, Mr. Fakhri introduces Roya to Bahman, another book-loving, justice-seeking customer. The love between Roya and Bahman develops at once, but a coup d’etat brings chaos to their lives and parts them. Decades later, they’re brought together again… and Roya has questions.