The War that Saved my Life by Kimberly Brubaker is one of the best children’s novels I have read in quite some time. Recommended for grades 5-8, this historical fiction novel has everything you’d want to teach your students: history, complex characters, raw events, life lessons, heartbreaking and heartwarming scenes, and so much more. If you’ve never read it, go do so! If you teach this amazing book, here are five activities for The War that Saved My Life that your students can complete for deeper learning.
Summary of The War that Saved My Life
An exceptionally moving story of triumph against all odds set during World War II, from the acclaimed author of Fighting Words, and for fans of Fish in a Tree and Number the Stars.
Ten-year-old Ada has never left her one-room apartment. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute—she sneaks out to join him.
So begins a new adventure for Ada, and for Susan Smith, the woman who is forced to take the two kids in. As Ada teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, and watches for German spies, she begins to trust Susan—and Susan begins to love Ada and Jamie. But in the end, will their bond be enough to hold them together through wartime? Or will Ada and her brother fall back into the cruel hands of their mother?
This masterful work of historical fiction is equal parts adventure and a moving tale of family and identity—a classic in the making.
1. Investigate the Setting
Historical fiction novels are my favorite genre to teach and one of my personal favorite genres to read as well. As a teacher, there’s just something about knowing students are not only reading and tackling all that comes with literature standards but also learning history in the process. Students can learn perspectives of characters, albeit fictional characters, but they can still see, hear, and understand what it must have been like to live during a major historical event. In this case, students can learn about WW2, the London air raids, the evacuation of Dunkirk, Operation Pied Piper, ration cards, and so many more WWII topics.
I highly recommend a deep dive into the background and events that led to WWII before beginning the novel. Then, as students read the events, more in-depth lessons and discussions can be made as historical events pop up.
In a background and setting investigation, students can learn all about any particular WWII event that intrigues them in this free project. Completing this before reading the novel allows students to gain pertinent background information about the setting.
Students pick a WWII topic, research it, and create a poster presentation. Then, students teach the class about the topic they have become experts on. In the end, the whole class learns about many individual WWII topics at once during the presentations.
The following FREE Rubric acts as a guideline for the project.
Learning about the setting and background of a novel helps deepen student understanding. This is especially crucial in a historical fiction novel.
2. Character Analysis
The War that Saved My Life has extremely complex characters. Ada, a ten-year-old girl with a club foot, has been emotionally, mentally, and physically abused by her mother. Being isolated in an apartment and never allowed to see the outside world had extreme effects of trauma on Ada.
Coupled with the responsibility of taking care of her younger sibling who was allowed to go outside and experience life, Ada fought with feelings of jealousy and control. Ada also succumbed to harsh punishment by her mother such as being confined under a dirty kitchen sink cabinet crawling with cockroaches for hours on end. Ada was neglected in the worst way possible and was never allowed to get help for her foot.
When Ada and her brother James are sent to live with Susan, the readers encounter another complex character. Susan is in the deep stages of grief as her best friend and roommate, who was like a sister, had recently passed away. Susan doesn’t want children in her home but finds herself drawn to caring for them, despite her initial coldness. We see how Ada’s trauma has affected her through large meltdowns, resistance, and rebellion. We also see how Ada and Susan soften toward each other over time.
Students can analyze the various characters throughout the novel through our FREE Characterization Poster Project. Students analyze the character by investigating their inner and outer character traits, using text-based evidence, and examining direct and indirect characterization through the author’s words.
Grab your FREE Characterization Poster Project today.
3. Character Transformation
One of the most profound character changes in the novel is that of Ada. She starts off as a neglected, starving, unkempt, frightened young girl who can’t even walk because of her club foot and the abuse and isolation her mother exhibited toward her. With exercise, unconditional love and care, steady food, and freedom, Ada becomes a confident horseback riding, helpful, and happy girl.
One of the activities I always try to include in any novel study is a character transformation analysis. All a student needs is a piece of copy paper, the novel, and coloring utensils. Students fold a piece of paper in half. (Normally hamburger style.) Students choose a character that has undergone a dramatic change, physically and emotionally. In this case, Ada would be the best fit. On the outside, students draw what Ada first looked like with 5-8 quotes from the novel around the drawing supporting Ada’s original appearance. The quotes should also describe what she was like at the beginning of the novel emotionally. It is important, students choose a variety of quotes that describe both the inner and outer traits of the character.
Next, students lift the paper up and draw Ada at the end of the novel. They also write various quotes that support Ada’s new identity on the outside and the inside. The quotes can show direct or indirect characterization. Next, they write a paragraph on the back explaining the events that caused this character change.
4. Would the Story Change if it were Present-Day?
To get students to really understand a character’s perspective, I like to have them think about if they were the main character and if the war is the same, but it has shifted to 2023. One of the biggest changes would be the presence of technology. Utilizing that change, there are various activities students can complete to put themselves in that character’s shoes.
Students can make an Instagram profile and page for Ada. What kinds of pictures and captions would you have if you were Ada? This can be done on the actual app or by finding an Instagram template.
Students can make a Vlog of a day in the life of Ada in 2023, in England, during a major war.
Website Journal Entries
Students create a blog of various journal entries on a free website such as weebly.com detailing the ins and outs of Ada’s life and her transformation.
Students create several short video clips, like an Instagram story or TikTok video, to showcase various important moments of Ada’s life.
As students think about living in Ada’s shoes, but in 2023, they can ponder other differences. Would her mother have been able to get away with such abuse and neglect? Would Ada have been able to get surgery right away as an infant? They can record and analyze these differences in an essay, Venn diagram, T-chart, or Google Slides.
Ada, James, and her caretaker Susan all hide in an air-raid shelter when the Nazis flew overhead and dropped bombs on England. It even happens where they live, Kent, which is in coastal England. The reader sees how traumatized and scared the characters are during the bombing and Ada, even more so, due to her past.
When Ada, James, and Susan climb into the small bunker, the bombing noise coupled with the tight space reminds Ada of when her mother would put her in the cabinet with cockroaches as punishment. It is heartbreaking Students can think about what it would be like to have to do just this. Since it would be present-day, students can also ponder what they would need in their bunker. How would the supplies in a present-day bunker be different in the 1930s versus 2023? Students can put together a poster with the supplies they would need and use in an air-raid shelter themselves.
5. Scrapbook Timeline
As a historical fiction novel, the sequence of events is extremely pertinent. Operation Pied Piper, the evacuation of children from London to the countryside, was a real-life event portrayed in the book. The Battle of Britain to destroy Britain’s army was described as well. There are major historical events that occur in the novel such as the Dunkirk Evacuation which occurred after the Battle of Britain. It was the evacuation of Allied troops from the shores of Dunkirk, France.
Students can create a digital timeline or a poster timeline with pictures and captions to record major historical events. They can also record important fictional events as well. Students can visually discern how the author wove the fiction with the historical happenings. By adding pictures to the timeline, students are able to better understand the history behind the novel. This in turn helps them better comprehend their reading.
By incorporating a scrapbook theme, students are free to add many types of pictures, primary or secondary resources, and even create their own scrapbook pieces such as a drawing of Ada’s horse or a seashell from when she first saw the ocean. In the past, my students have written letters from the point of view of a character. They then in turn added coffee stains for a dramatic effect. The sky’s the limit for students’ creativity. The scrapbook timeline allows students to synthesize their comprehension of the novel.
Students and teachers alike have fallen in love with The War that Saved My Life. It is truly a moving novel. The added historical element creates interest for students as they learn about true events. The transformation of characters is heartbreaking and heartwarming all at once. By utilizing learning the history of WWII, analyzing characters, changing the setting to the present day, and making a scrapbook timeline, students can submerge themselves in this wonderful novel and learn so much in the process.