The Decades Reading Challenge continues, and for the month of April, we’ll be reading books set in the 1940s.
You can read all about the challenge, download your free printable reading tracker, and find book lists for other decades here.
As a reminder, you can choose any book you like that is set in the decade, but to get you started, we’ve compiled a great list of books about the Forties that include historical fiction novels, books about the 1940s in America, and non-fiction reads about the events and people of the day.
The early and mid-1940s were largely consumed by World War II. There are some wonderful books this period in world history, but don’t worry, we also managed to find some books set in the 1940s that do not mention nazis!
With it, WWII brought many technological advancements, including nuclear fusion, as well as technologies that were the starting point for both commercial air travel and space exploration. The years following the war were also the beginnings of the Baby Boomer generation.
Major World Events of the 1940s
Aggression in World War II, which officially began in 1939, continues in 1940 when Germany invades Denmark, Norway, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Germany also begins “The Blitz,” bombing London in an attempt to weaken the British Royal Air Force.
During 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt is elected for an unprecedented third term as the U.S. president. The same year, President Roosevelt institutes the first military draft in the United States during peacetime.
Starting in the early 1940s, the Tuskegee Institute was at the forefront of helping prepare young African-American pilots to fight for freedom in the skies.
During 1941 Soviet Russia and Japan sign a non-aggression pact, becoming allies with Germany. The Siege of Leningrad begins as German troops enter the Soviet Union, the siege lasted until 1944.
On December 7, 1941, Japan launched a surprise attack on the U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, which finally brought the United States into the War. Italy and Germany also declare war on the U.S.
The Battle of Midway between Japan and the U.S. begins in 1942. Fearing they will become a security threat during wartime, the US government begins the internment of Japanese-Americans.
The same year, the U.S. Congress creates several branches of the armed forces for women to join the war effort.
On June 6, 1944, famously known as D-Day, more than 150,000 Allied troops successfully stormed the beaches of Normandy in France. Shortly thereafter, Paris is liberated.
Other important events in 1944 include Mahatma Gandhi’s release from prison, Poland’s liberation from Nazi occupation, and FDR’s election to a fourth term as President of the United States. FDR’s fourth term was cut short by his death in April 1945.
1945 brings with it the end of WWII, as Allied and Soviet forces liberate concentration camps on their way toward Germany.
In August 1945, the U.S. drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, ending the war in the Pacific Theatre. In the aftermath of the war, the United Nations is created when fifty nations signed the original charter.
In 1945, Vietnam declares its independence from France under Ho Chi Minh
During 1947, India and Pakistan become independent from the United Kingdom.
In 1947, Jackie Robinson joins the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first African-American to play Major League Baseball in the modern era. Robinson and other black athletes during the 1940s, including boxer Joe Louis and Olympian Jesse Owens, became popular heroes and paved the way for future generations.
As part of the new wave of technology brought on post-war, the transistor is invented at Bell Laboratories in December 1947. The Polaroid instant camera was also introduced in 1947.
Indian independence leader and pacifist Mahatma Gandhi is assassinated on his way to a prayer meeting in January 1948 after achieving independence for India.
Following the continued growth of Jewish refugees and settlers to Israel during WWII, Israel is created as an independent Jewish state in 1948.
Following the Chinese Civil War, Mao Zedong’s Communist forces declare the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949.
Books Set in the 1940s
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By Anthony Doerr Setting: WWII France & Germany First published 2014
This breathtaking novel interweaves the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner Pfennig.
Marie-Laure is a young, blind girl who lives near the Paris Museum of Natural History with her father, who works at the museum. Father and daughter fleeflee Paris when Nazis occupy the city, and travel to Saint-Malo to stay with Marie-Laure's reclusive great uncle near the sea. In addition to seeking safety for themselves, they also carry with them what might be the museum's most valuable jewel.
Werner is an orphan with his sister in a German mining town. He finds a crude radio that brings the siblings news stories from places they can only imagine. As he grows, Werner becomes an expert and building and fixing radio instruments. Drafted into the academy for Hitler Youth, his skill has him enlisted to track down the resistance.
The Book Girls Say... Angela found this book a little slow at the start, but she was drawn in by the beautiful prose and vivid imagery. Soon she felt very connected to both characters and didn't want the story to end.
By Maria Benedict Setting: 1940s Hollywood First published 2019
This novel opens in 1930s Austria where Hedwig Kiesler's beauty saved her from the rising Nazi party and led her into a marriage with an Austrian arms dealer. Always underestimated, she overhears the Third Reich's plans while at her husband's side, understands more than anyone would have guessed.
After devising a plan to flee her husband's castle in disguise, she escapes. The book then jumps forward to her arrival in Hollywood, where she changes her name to Hedy Lamarr, signs with MGM, and becomes a major film star of the 1940s. But beyond being a bombshell, Hedy was also a scientist whose groundbreaking invention revolutionized modern communication.
By Kerri Maher Setting: WWII London First published 2018
Kathleen "Kick" was the daughter of Joe and Rose Kennedy, and younger sister of Jack and Joe. In the late 1930s, Kick was the "It Girl" of London society, where her father was US Ambassador. She is swept off her feet by Billy Hartington, the future Duke of Devonshire, but the devoutly Catholic Kennedy family doesn't approve.
When WWII began, the Kennedys are forced to return to the United States, tearing Kick and Billy apart. Looking to find her way back to England, Kick joins the Red Cross. She will be forced to choose between family and love.
Fans of Downton Abbey will enjoy this novel as it explores the grandeur of Britain's upper crust.
By Ransom Riggs Setting: 1940, Wales First published 2011
This book is entirely different from others on the list - a spine-tingling fantasy set on a remote island off the coast of Wales, and illustrated with vintage photography, this novel provides a thrilling reading experience.
At the start of the book, a family tragedy sends 16-year-old Jacob journeying to the remote island where he discovers the ruins of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. He discovers that the children who were quarantined on the deserted island may have also been dangerous, and may still be alive.
By Beatriz Williams Setting: 1941, Bahamas First published 2019
WWII-era Nassau was a hotbed of spies, traitors, and the most infamous couple of the age, the Duke and Dutchess of Windsor. Five years after their love affair rocked the British monarchy, Lulu arrives in the Bahamas to investigate them for a New York society magazine. As she works her way into their social circle, Lulu uncovers evidence of an uglier reality.
By Tatiana de Rosnay Setting: 1942 and 2002, Paris First published 2006
Ten-year-old Sarah is arrested with her family in the Vel' d'Hiv' round up - the most notorious act of French collaboration with the Nazis. But before the police come to take them, Sarah locks her younger brother in their favorite hiding spot - a cupboard in the family's apartment and holds onto the key, thinking she'll be back soon.
On the 60th anniversary of the Vel' d'Hiv', an American journalist is asked by her Paris-based magazine to write an article about that day in France's past. Having lived in Paris for 25 years, she realizes her ignorance about the event, and is shocked by the silence that still surrounds it. She begins to follow a trail that connects her to Sarah and forces her to question everything.
By Marcus Zusak Setting: 1939-1942, Nazi Germany First published 2006
Liesel's life is changed when she picks up an object hidden in the snow at her brother's graveside. It becomes her first act of book thievery, and it begins her love affair with books and words. With the help of her foster father, she learns to read, and soon she is stealing more books - from Nazi book-burnings to the mayor's wife's library.
She shares her stolen books with neighbors, and with the Jewish man that her foster family is hiding in their basement.
By Laura Hillenbrand Setting: WWII, Pacific Theatre First published 2010
We are introduced to Louis Zamperini in his childhood and see his talent for running take him all the way to the Berlin Olympics. But when WWII begins, Louis goes from athlete to airman. In May 1943, Louis' bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean. His unlikely survival aboard a tiny raft surrounded by sharks, and on the verge of starvation, landed him in an even more perilous trial.
The Book Girls Say... Most of Angela's knowledge of WWII centered around the wrongs of the Nazi party and the devastating impacts of the atomic bomb we dropped on Japan. But outside of Pearl Harbor, she didn't know much about Japan's role in the war. Before reading this book, she also didn't think she had much interest in WWII non-fiction - Unbroken changed all that!
Kelly Rimmer Setting: 1942 and 2019, Europe First published 2019
Inspired by the author's own family history, is a tragic love story. Alina and Tomasz were best friends who planned to marry. But when their village falls to the Nazis, Alina doesn't know if Tomasz is alive or dead.
Decades later, Alice has is struggling to support her son who was born with autism spectrum disorder. When her grandmother is hospitalized, she begs Alice to return to Poland to see what become of those she loved. Alice travels to Poland and begins to uncover her grandmother's story.
The Book Girls Say... Melissa really enjoyed this unique look into WW2. It's not a light read, but it's still a great escape to look at what generations before us endured on a personal level. The split storyline between current times and the war is a nice reprieve from the harder 1940s scenes.
Martha Hall Kelly Setting: WWII, New York, Paris, Germany, Poland First published 2016
This story crosses three continents and follows three women whose lives are on a collision course. Caroline is a New York socialite working at the French consulate. Kasia is Polish teenager and a courier for the underground resistance movement. Herta is an ambitious young German doctor who finds herself trapped in a male-dominated world of Nazi secrets and power.
The Book Girls Say... Melissa also loved this one as well, although Lilac Girls has scenes that are even more tragic and tough to read compared to The Things We Cannot Say.
She was DEVASTED when she realized this one is Historical Fiction based on the true experiences of the 'Ravensbrück Rabbits'. Get your Kleenex ready, but don't skip it. This story is part of history that we shouldn't ignore.
By Kristin Hannah Setting: WWII Russia; modern-day Alaska First published 2010
This story opens in modern-day with two adult sisters, Meredith and Nina, who are as different as can be. But they remain connected by their beloved father and by the Russian fairy tale their cold, disapproving mother sometimes told them at night.
When their father falls ill, he makes the three women promise that the fairy tale will be told one last time - all the way to the end. What unfolds is the true story of Anya's life in war-torn Leningrad. What the sisters are about to learn is a secret that will change everything.
The Book Girls Say... Many WWII historical novels focus on the region of France and Germany, but The Winter Garden illuminates the experiences of those in Russia and left us with a much better understanding of the Eastern Front. But this is much more than just another WWII story, it's a very powerful and moving family story as well.
By Philip Handleman with Harry T. Stewart Time Setting: WWII First published 2019
This is the remarkable true story of Lt. Col. Harry Stewart Jr., one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen pilots who experienced air combat during World War II. This book recounts the bravery and heroics of Stewart's combat missions, as well as the cruel injustices that Stewart and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen faced during their wartime service and when they returned home after the war.
By Joseph Heller Setting: 1942-1944, Italy First published 1961
Set during WWII, this novel follows the life of Captain John Yossarian, a US Air Force bombardier. The Captain's squadron is based on an Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea.
This book can be viewed as a series of connected short stories, and though it takes some time for the chapters to come together. This leads to a bit of a love it or hate it situation when it comes to reviews, but overall, this book has become an enduring classic that pays off for those who stick with it.
By Liza Mundy Time Setting:WWII First published 2017
Readers who enjoyed Hidden Figures and The Girls of Atomic City will love this astonishing, untold story of the American women who cracked Axis codes to help secure the Allied victory.
Recruited by the US Army and Navy, more than ten thousand women from small towns and elite colleges served as codebreakers during WWII. Their efforts were largely erased from history due to their strict vow of secrecy.
By Rosella Postorino Setting: 1943, Germany First Published 2007
Three times a day, ten women go to Hitler's secret headquarters - the Wolf's Lair - to eat his meals before he does to ensure it is safe. As the women a daily forced to eat what might kill them, they begin to divide into those loyal to Hitler, and those who insist they are not Nazis.
This book is based on the true story of Margot Wolk, who was one of Hitler's tasters.
By Jamie Ford Setting: WWII and 1986, Seattle First published 2009
Henry Lee's father wants desperately for his son to be an American. At his school, he is ignored by all of the "white" kids, but the one friend he makes is a young Japanese girl named Keiko. But soon Keiko and her family are rounded up into a Japanese internment camp. Forty years later, Henry finds himself searching to reconnect.
In addition to giving readers a closer look at the Japanese internment camps in America that often get glossed over in our history lessons, this book also gives a peek into the 1940's Seattle jazz scene.
The Book Girls Say...
Melissa really enjoyed learning about a part of WWII that she knew very little about. This one will make you think, but it's NOT a graphic look into the horrors of war. She rated it a solid 4 stars and thinks everyone should know the story.
By Elizabeth Gilbert Setting: 1940s, New York City First published 2019
Told from the perspective of an older woman looking back on her youth, City of Girls is a fictional love story set in the New York theater world during the 1940s.
Nineteen year old Vivian has been kicked out of Vassar College due to poor performance, and her affluent parents send her to live with her aunt who owns a flamboyant but crumbling midtown theater. It is there that she meets the love of her life. Many years later at the age of 95, she tells her story, musing that "at some point in a woman's life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time."
By Sara Gruen Setting: 1942-1945, Scottish Highlands First published 2015
After Ellis Hyde is financially cut off by his father, he decides that the only way to regain his father's favor is to succeed in a venture that his father famously attempted and failed at - the hunt for the Loch Ness monster.
He believes if he can find the monster, he can restore his father's good name. Joined by his wife, Maddie, and their friend, Hank - a wealthy socialite, the three make their way to Scotland in the midst of WWII. As the two men go off to hunt the monster each day, Maddie is alone in a foreign country.
By Lois Lowry Setting: 1943, Denmark First published 1989
Awarded the Newbery Medal in 1990, you may remember this book from your youth. Set in 1943, 10-year-old Annemarie and her best friend, Ellen, live in Copenhagen where life is filled with school, food shortages, and Nazi soldiers marching through town. When the Jews of Denmark are "relocated," Ellen moves in with Annemarie's family and pretends to be one of them in order to survive.
Unlike many WWII books, this story is more subtle in its descriptions of the horrendous acts of war, while still allowing the reader to understand exactly what atrocities are happening. This is a perfect book for adults and children to share together.
Fiona had plans to marry her fiance when he returned from WWII and settle down in the Boston suburbs. But when he is reported missing after being shot down in Germany, her plans are shattered. Determined to learn his fate, Fiona volunteers as a Red Cross Clubmobile girl in France, and convinces her two best friends to join her. The trio isn't prepared for the challenges of war, but their courage and friendship will carry them through. Reviewers warn to keep the tissues close by!
By Marjorie Hart Setting: 1945, NYC First published 2007
Fresh from their sorority house at the University of Iowa, Marjorie and her best friend Marty arrive in New York City hoping for summer jobs as shopgirls. After being turned away from numerous department stores, they find jobs at Tiffany & Co., becoming the first women to work on the sales floor and making them the envy of all of their friends.
Telling of the magical summer that the author spent in NYC with her best friend - the best summer of their lives spent rubbing elbows with the rich and famous - Hart allows us to see snippets of history through their eyes. This is a must-read for all fans of vintage New York glamour.
By Mary Ann Shaffer Setting: 1946, London First published 2008
As London is emerging from WWII, Juliet Ashton, a writer, is looking for the subject of her next book. She begins exchanging letters with a man she's never met - a native of the island of Guernsey. Through their letters, Juliet is drawn into the world of the man and his eccentric friends - from pig farmers to phrenologists, and all literature lovers.
As Juliet learns about their tastes in books, she also comes to understand the impact that German occupation has had on their lives.
By Jennifer Robson Setting: 1947, London; 2016, Toronto First published 2018
The Gown takes us inside the workrooms of the famed fashion house of Norman Harnell where one of the most famous wedding gowns in history was created for Princess Elizabeth. Here we meet Ann and Miriam, two embroiderers.
Seventy years later, Heather seeks to unravel the mystery of a set of embroidered flowers left behind by her late grandmother, who never spoke of her life in Britain.
The Book Girls Say...
This is the first book Melissa has read that focuses on the years right AFTER the war. While the making of the gown is important to the story and fascinating, it's not what you'll remember. The story is much broader and we think you'll love this step back into the post-war years.
By Ernest J. Gaines Setting: Late 1940s, Louisianna First published 1993
Set in a small Cajun community, a young black man - Jefferson - is in the wrong place at the wrong time when a liquor store shooting leaves three men dead. As the only survivor, she is convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
Grant Wiggins left his hometown to attend university, but has returned to teach at the plantation school. His aunt, and Jefferson's godmother, persuades him to visit Jefferson in jail to share some of his learning so that Jefferson can "die a man."
[…] during WWI or WWII, you’ll find some great options on these lists: Books Set in the 1910s, Books Set in the 1940s, and Books Like the Nightingale.Throughout the list, we noted those book currently available as […]
Tuesday 6th of October 2020
This article is great! If it help, you can teach your child
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2020 Reading Challenge - Book Girls' Guide
Friday 2nd of October 2020
[…] April - 1940s […]
Friday 3rd of April 2020
Melissa, Another interesting book during WWII, is The Alphabet House by Jussi Adler-Olsen. My husband and I listened to the audiobook on a long trip. It was very interesting. Description as follows:
Two British pilots during World War II are shot down during a raid over Germany. They survive the crash, but are faced with a German dog patrol. They manage to save themselves by jumping aboard a hospital train and hide among the patients. But when they reach their destination, it occurs to them that it is a mental hospital. Now they can either try to simulate insanity or try to escape.
During this time of uncertainty, except the library is closed until further notice!, finding good books is a challenge unless of course you order it. That is my downfall. I'd rather take my time and look it over. Lol! Stay healthy and be well.
Friday 3rd of April 2020
That does sound interesting! I can't wait to check it out. I totally understand that it's way more fun to browse books in person too! My habit of buying books faster than I can read them is coming in handy right now because I have a stockpile at home to work through.
It might be fun to find a neighbor to trade some books with if you happen to have a Facebook group or Nextdoor page for your neighborhood. With careful sanitation and social distancing of course!
Monday 30th of March 2020
Please Please Please add: Code Name Helene by Ariel Lawhon. Its an incredible story about a woman named Nancy Wake who becomes a british spy in France during world war II. It's historical fiction, based on the true story of her life. It is such a great read. It was just published in March.
Monday 30th of March 2020
We hadn't seen that one and it sounds amazing! Thank you so much for the great suggestion!