When We Were Shadows by Janet Wees

When We Were Shadows: A Holocaust Remembrance Book for Young Readers

Janet Wees, Author

Second Story Press, Biography, Apr. 18, 2018

Suitable for ages: 9-12

Pages: 157

Themes: Jewish children, Family relationships, Holocaust, Netherlands, Underground Resistance, Heroes


It is 1937. Walter is five years old when his parents decide to flee their home in Germany and start a new life in the Netherlands. As Jews, they know they are not safe with the Nazi party in power. For nearly three years Walter and his family is relatively carefree. His father opens a small tea and coffee shop.  Walter and Hannah are able to attend school, learn Dutch, and play with other children.

When Germany invades the Netherlands in 1940, Walter’s world changes from safe and predictable to one full of uncertainty. He hears his parents talking in whispers.  He is too young to appreciate the danger he is in, and everything seems like a great adventure. He has to change his name. His family leaves their home and shop. But as the war progresses, his family is forced to move again and again, from city to countryside, to eventually, the Hidden Village deep in the Dutch woods.

Walter and his parents are separated from his seriously ill sister, who is hidden in a hospital, and his grandmother, who is hidden in other safe houses. He writes letters on napkins, scraps of paper, and book pages, describing his life, his fears, and his hopes. Walter’s eyes are opened to the threat that surrounds them every day and to the network of people who are risking their lives to help them stay hidden. This true story shines a light on a little-known part of WWII history and the heroes of the Dutch resistance—particularly those involved in the Hidden Village—without whose protection, Walter, his family, and hundreds of others would not have survived.

Why I like this book:

This is a moving and sensitive true story about the strength of the human spirit to survive. It is story about the power of a family determined to stay together. It is a story about the compassion and kindness of ordinary individuals who put their lives in danger because they know it is the right thing to do.

I like the format of Janet Wees book as it reads like a story. The author uses the letters Walter writes to his granddaughter, Jenny, as the background for the story. He waits until Jenny is old enough to share his entire story of fleeing Germany in 1937 as a young child and the fear and horror around him.  The rest of the story is told in the letters Walter writes to his oma (grandmother.)  After Oma’s death, Walter found the letters wrapped in a bundle in a trunk. They are in the voice of young Walter, who is able to sneak the letters to Oma through the Underground.

When We Were Shadows is a vivid and realistic story that will make readers remember so that this kind of atrocity doesn’t happen again. There are photographs throughout the book of Walter and Hannah, homes where they were hidden, dense forest camouflaged hide-outs and a rebuilt Hidden Village, that add undeniable authenticity to the story.

Resources: Make sure you read the Prologue, the Epilogue about the liberation and the Author’s Note at the beginning and end. This is another excellent book for middle grade teachers to add to their Holocaust collection.

Janet Wees has written since she was nine years old. A retired teacher, she spends her time creating children’s picture books, reading, walking, writing letters, cycling, volunteering and traveling. She lives in Calgary, Alberta.

Greg Pattridge is the host for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

The publisher provided me with an advanced copy of the book.

About Patricia Tiltonhttps://childrensbooksheal.wordpress.comI want "Children's Books Heal" to be a resource for parents, grandparents, teachers and school counselors. My goal is to share books on a wide range of topics that have a healing impact on children who are facing challenges in their lives. If you are looking for good books on grief, autism, visual and hearing impairments, special needs, diversity, bullying, military families and social justice issues, you've come to the right place. I also share books that encourage art, imagination and creativity. I am always searching for those special gems to share with you. If you have a suggestion, please let me know.

29 thoughts on “When We Were Shadows by Janet Wees

  1. A great story for today’s children. I remember reading Anne Frank’s Diary as a young girl and becoming much more aware of the horrors of war and how it affects children. I am including some of this history in the next Amanda travels book, Amanda in Holland-Missing in Action. I think it is so important that these stories are shared. I like the format of Janet’s book and the cover is perfect.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have been on a quest to share books on the Holocaust that are age-appropriate. I am excited that there are many more available to children, whether biography, historical fiction and nonfiction. There are stories that fit perfectly into school curriculums.


      • I am sorry I never responded to your comment. I just saw it. I thought I’d set up notifications when comments came up. Just wanted to say that When We Were Shadows was chosen as an Honour Book #1 at Festival of Trees (Forest of Reading) in Toronto on May 14. Huge surprise for me! Feel gratified that it is the result of student readers’ votes.


  2. I’m always interested in a new view of the Holocaust. I don’t think we can have too many for this age group. Kids move through the middle-grade books in a hurry, so there is always room for another good one. Thanks for telling me about this book.


    • I agree — the more stories the better. I love the variety of books that are available to children. It helps make history more interesting if they hear a story from a child who lived it.


  3. I appreciate your posting about this meaningful book. There is a lot of historical WWII fiction being published from the perspective of American children right now. It sounds as if this biography will fill a much-needed slot in the middle-grade non-fiction genre.


  4. This is a time period that should never be forgotten. It’s books like this one that ensure it never will be. I like that it reads as story and not a compilation of facts. I’ll buy on the lookout for this one.


    • There are never enough books written about this period. I am fascinated in reading every unique perspective I discover. I love to read about heroes putting their lives in jeopardy to help others.


  5. Pingback: 39 Haunting Holocaust Books for Kids – PragmaticMom

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