Children and young adults growing up in times of relative peace have a unique perspective. Their understanding of war is created by what they are learning rather than their memories. One way to make Memorial Day more real for students is through reading.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Memorial Day Readings or Poems for Elementary or Middle School Students
- Memorial Day Readings or Poems for High School Students
- Memorial Day Readings or Poems for College Students
They could read a first-hand experience of war. Or a story of how others have celebrated Memorial Day. These stories and readings should be age-appropriate so that children aren’t overwhelmed. But don’t shy away from hard topics and conversations if they come up.
All of these Memorial Day readings and the conversations they inspire can help children understand the realities of war.
And for your reference, here are the dates for Memorial Day in the next few years:
2021: Monday, May 31
2022: Monday, May 30
2023: Monday, May 29
2024: Monday, May 27
2025: Monday, May 26
Memorial Day Readings or Poems for Elementary or Middle School Students
For younger readers, a story that focuses on a child who was affected by war is a good place to start. They will be able to connect more with someone their own age. And it will be easier, for you as an educator or parent, to draw parallels to another child’s experience.
You could also consider a reading that explains the history of Memorial Day and it’s traditions. But there are many ways to approach Memorial Day readings for children in elementary and middle schools. Here are some good readings to start with.
1. What Is Peace? by Wallace Edwards
This children’s book can be a gentle introduction to what it means to be at war. For very young children, the violence and strife of war can be too much. This book starts a discussion of what peace is and how its opposite, war, forces us to make difficult choices.
War is a concept that children can understand. They may be able to draw parallels between their daily conflicts and the idea of war. Learning about war is a key component to valuing those who sacrifice their lives for peace.
2. The Poppy Lady: Moina Belle Michael and Her Tribute to Veterans, by Barbara E. Walsh and Layne Johnson
This book explains how traditions start. During World War I Moina Belle Michael began wearing a poppy to memorialize fallen soldiers. The practice caught on, and now the poppy flower is a ubiquitous reminder of WWI. All because of Michael’s simple action.
Use this book to start a conversation about symbolism, remembrance, and sacrifice. You can discuss other symbols and their importance. You could add in an art project, and create your own poppies to celebrate Memorial Day.
3. Rolling Thunder by Kate Messner and Greg Ruth
A story and a poem all at once, this book tells the story of the Rolling Thunder Ride for Freedom. This event is a tribute to the armed forces. And it pays homage to those that sacrificed themselves for this effort. It includes an easy to follow narrative illustrating the difficulties of war.
The message encourages the reader to spend time contemplating the need for war. It is a good book to share on Memorial Day.
4. The Wall by Eve Bunting and Ronald Himler
This book covers a first visit to the Vietnam War Veterans Memorial by a child and his father. It can help children understand how the loss of life is commemorated. And it gives them the opportunity to think about what that loss of life means.
This book focuses on the Vietnam War, which was one of the country's most contested wars. It could be a useful starting point for older children who are discussing the military. It might lead to discussions on how to support and value the military even when the choice to go to war isn’t uniformly supported.
5. “Why Do We Celebrate Memorial Day?” from The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
This Smithsonian Institute blog post is a good starting point for understanding Memorial Day. It includes photographs and written history to explain the origins of the holiday.
These resources can help children understand why this day matters. The blog post can be paired with an interactive activity. Children can come up with a way to commemorate and memorialize someone important to them for Memorial Day.
Memorial Day Readings or Poems for High School Students
High school students are usually well-versed in the world. Or at least, they know enough to read accounts that share the realities of war. Although emphasizing gory realities is not necessary, there may be times it makes sense.
Consider these readings for high schoolers. They can help them to understand the sacrifices made during wartime. And help explain how war became an important element of the U.S.’ political identity.
6. Excerpts from For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
These famous war novels reveal attitudes about war throughout history. Read selected passages or the full book, either option will help the reader understand war better. These books let students draw on their working knowledge of war as it's fought in modern-day.
In both cases, they can consider how to respect and admire the loss of life involved. These books will also encourage some thought about the increasing mechanization of war. That may lead to some discussions about what war could look like in the future.
7. “Ultimate Sacrifice" by Kevin Coyne
This Smithsonian Institute article will appeal to high schoolers who are fans of baseball. And to those who love a good story. This article showcases Eddie Grant, who was a lawyer, ballplayer, and a soldier in World War I.
It will be great food for thought for teens. Many of them haven’t thought about what it means to have many different identities and passions. It also focuses on recognizing the unsung heroes in their families and friend groups. A famous baseball player may be more relatable than one of the military generals of their history books.
8. “Virtual Tour of the National Museum of the Marine Corps”
The Marine Corps National Museum has a thorough website. It would be a great resource for an interactive research project. Students can pursue a topic of interest related to commemorating military heroes. Taking a virtual tour can be a nice departure from a "traditional'' reading.
But the Marine Corps National Museum website is much more than just a website. It is also a great educational resource. Even though it isn’t a book, students can still absorb a lot of information via web pages.
9. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
This book is a mainstay of high school literature classes. It offers a fictional first-person account of what trench warfare was like.
And it gives the reader an idea of the intensity of this experience. Teens will gain historical knowledge, and get an inside look at the difficulties of war.
Memorial Day Readings or Poems for College Students
In college, many students read to help them question their understandings of the world. These short stories and readings might offer a particularly interesting perspective.
They can be used to challenge a student’s understanding of war. And can open their eyes to the sacrifices made by members of the military. Readings can prompt intense discussion. But not everyone has to agree on the meaning or value of each perspective.
10. General Orders No. 11
This Decoration Day proclamation, made by Commander-in-Chief John. A. Logan in 1868, offers an insight into the origins of Memorial Day.
It allows the readers to understand the origins of the day. To get the most from this reading, discuss how it might be adapted or interpreted in modern times.
11. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
This historical novel shows the horrors of the Holocaust through the eyes of a child in WWII Germany. While the reading level makes it accessible to younger readers, it's a sad novel.
The book shows the daily challenges of living during war. It gives the reader space to consider how war affects everyone, not just those fighting.
12. “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien
Tim O’Brien’s title story in this collection of short stories takes the reader into the mind of a young soldier. It shows what it was like to be a young soldier, only somewhat prepared for the intensity of the Vietnam War. O’Brien works to undo the oversimplification of the soldier’s experience.
College-age readers will appreciate his candor when writing about the military experience.
13. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut is praised for his surreal anti-war stance in this book. It is yet another example of a book that helps people create a more nuanced understanding of war. Reading it can be an opener to discussing feelings of conflict around war.
Those reading it may be left wondering about balance. How can one show respect for remembrances like Memorial Day while also feeling angry about the unjust cost of war? Allow this topic to be discussed to help students talk through their feelings about it.
14. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
Many of these books are focused on the negatives of war. It can be hard for younger children to reconcile the two different issues around Memorial Day. It is important to honor those who have sacrificed and died. But it is also important to ask what led to the war, and if those choices were the right ones.
Catch 22 turns a satirical gaze on the prospect of war. It may make some readers uncomfortable with its implications. It does explore some interesting points about what kind of country we want to be. And it challenges the reader to think about what kinds of wars they will support.
Remembering Memorial Day
Most young people in the United States haven’t been members of the active-duty armed forces. Readings and short stories can give them a glimpse into the complex realities of war. The readings can also help them understand the connection between the history of their country and the history of the world.
These are the years when children are forming their opinions on the world around them. They are creating their ethical system and moral compass. Understanding war and military service can be a powerful addition to that system. Making these connections can help them to situate their own choices as they grow up.
But that’s a lofty goal that won’t be realized by these readings alone. These writings will start conversations about war. And help readers have a greater understanding of Memorial Day and its origins.
If you're looking for more on the history of Memorial Day, read our article on the history of Decoration Day.
- “Virtual Marine Corps Museum” National Museum of the Marine Corps. virtualusmcmuseum.com
- Coyne, Kevin. “Ultimate Sacrifice.” Smithsonian Magazine. Smithsonian Institute. smithsonianmag.com/history/ultimate-sacrifice-180728112/
- “Why do we celebrate Memorial Day?” National Museum of American History. Smithsonian Institute. March 2013. americanhistory.si.edu/blog/2013/05/you-asked-we-answered-why-do-we-celebrate-memorial-day.html
- “Decoration Day, General Orders No. 11” US Memorial Day. usmemorialday.org/order11.html