The War That Saved My Life

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
The War That Saved My Life Book Poster Image
Parents recommendPopular with kids
Abused girl finds courage, family in compelling WWII story.

Parents say

age 9+
Based on 13 reviews

Kids say

age 10+
Based on 45 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Plenty of details about England in the early days of World War II come to life as the characters experience them: blackout curtains, food rationing, the phrase "loose lips sink ships." 

Positive Messages

Strong messages of love, friendship, self-respect, family, courage. Also, learning from your mistakes and doing better.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Ada is both believable and heroic as she grapples with her terrors, learns to accept kindness, shows her value -- and has fun for the first time in her life. In an early scene, Ada's 6-year-old brother, Jamie, steals food from a local shop because Ada's starving. Adult characters Susan Smith, who reluctantly takes in Ada and Jamie, and Lady Thorton, who spearheads many wartime relief efforts, provide the kids a safe, life-changing place to land, even when they're dealing with fears and losses of their own. Other supporting characters, notably Fred Grimes, the stableman at Lady Thorton's place, show Ada kindness and teach her valuable lessons on everything from manners to pony care.


It's wartime, so violence is a big part of the story: planes crash, pilots die, and some civilians perish in bombings as others huddle in shelters. Descriptions of what's going on are clear but not gory and more compelling for their matter-of-factness and the resolution with which the characters keep going. In one scene, Ada, who's gone to help with wounded soldiers from Dunkirk, hastily leaves the room when she realizes the older women are cleaning up men who've lost control of their bowels. The most harrowing violence comes from Ada's mother, who beats and starves her children and keeps them in foul conditions. Also, a teacher thinks left-handedness is a sign of the devil and forces a left-handed kid to write with his right hand by tying up his left.


There are a few discreet hints that Susan's late friend Becky, with whom she shared a house, also was her romantic partner, but it's never stated explicitly.


Kids and adults occasionally say "bloody," which, it's made clear, is a more serious profanity in British English than in American. An adult calls another adult a "lazy slut."


Jamie names a cat Bovril, after the British food product he and Ada are fed daily.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The War That Saved My Life, which was named a 2016 Newbery Honor book, is a standout coming-of-age story set in the English countryside during World War II. Wartime brings new, scary things into the characters' lives, from bomb shelters and destroyed homes to the plane crashes that kill the pilots at the nearby air base. Far more troubling, especially to sensitive readers, is the character of Ada and Jamie's abusive mother, who regularly smacks the kids around and has kept Ada, born with a clubfoot, locked up in one room her whole life -- and who hangs ominously in the background when the kids land in the country, where they experience care and kindness for the first time in their lives. Kids and adults will cheer for Ada as she discovers she has value and learns to stand up for herself -- but will her mother take the kids back and destroy it all? There's lots of historical detail about World War II in England, from the evacuation of kids to the countryside to details about British military planes.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Parent of a 11-year-old Written bymatthew Y May 25, 2015


This is a great book that will grasp the intrests of many children and kids alike. it is very realistic and seriously reflects on the dangers and fear of livin... Continue reading
Adult Written bystalfo May 6, 2015

A fantastic book, but one thing to note that the reviewer failed to mention

The reviewer did a great job describing the book and I agreed with much of her thoughts about the book. In regards to language, though, she failed to mention th... Continue reading
Teen, 14 years old Written byburntcrumblee December 29, 2020

Passive-aggressively homophobic parents make me so mad

I love this book and I've probably read it over 6 times. It's my one of my favourite books period. It has a lot of suggestions that Susan is a lesbian... Continue reading
Kid, 8 years old February 8, 2021

One of the best chapter books I've ever read

Awesome book! I like historical fiction, and I think this story about World War II is so great!

What's the story?

In London just before World War II, Ada doesn't know how old she is, her last name, or much of anything of life outside the room where her mother has kept her in terrible conditions for as long as she can remember. Ada's mother is humiliated at the thought of people knowing she has a disabled daughter (Ada was born with a clubfoot and gets around by crawling), so Ada has no dealings with other people, except to wave from her window. Her younger brother, Jamie, who's about to start school, is more mobile and sometimes steals food for his starving sister. Their mother beats them both regularly and often doesn't give them enough to eat. Suddenly, as World War II and a possible German invasion loom, the kids are evacuated to the countryside, where they're so filthy and lice-infested that nobody wants them. When a reclusive local spinster is forced to take them in, their lives change in unimaginable ways, including having clean clothes and regular meals. Also, there's a pony. As the kids experience love and kindness for the first time in their lives and learn to pitch in with the war effort, Ada can't get away from her biggest terror: that their new happiness will last only until their mother finds it more convenient to take them back to their old life.

Is it any good?

In lesser hands than those of Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, the plot might tumble into cliché, but thanks to Ada's unforgettable character and unflinching voice, you're too busy cheering her on. She comes into her own as she experiences a world she's never imagined. A cynic, even a young one, might note in passing that THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE includes elements we've seen many times before: Lives change when a reclusive curmudgeon takes in waifs; a pony transforms a troubled girl's life; brave Brits rise to the occasion in wartime. But they're artfully woven into the story. 

You'll also share the anxiety that gives Ada bigger panic attacks the better her life gets, because it's all going to be snatched away. She explains to her new friend that she doesn't want her guardian, Susan, to help her, because "I don't want to get used to her. She's just someone we have to stay with for a little while. She's not, you know, actually real."

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about World War II. Do you have family members who lived in that time? What were their experiences? 

  • Why do you think stories about a young protagonist's life-changing relationship with a horse are so popular? What others have you read or seen as movies? How does Ada's relationship with Butter in particular compare with other stories you know?

  • If something happened in your community so all the kids were being sent away to a safer place, how would you feel? Would you be happy to get to safety, or would you do your best to figure out a way to stay home?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love coming-of-age and World War II stories

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