Elegy for the Young: YA Literature of War

Wheelock College’s summer reading book, When the Emperor Was Divine (813.54 O889w) by Julie Otsuka, details a fictional account of a Japanese-American family’s harrowing ordeal in 1942 California.  It chronicles lives torn apart by war though they be far from the battle front.

Otsuka’s work is lyrical and difficult, simple and profound.  So too is much of the literature written in and about war.  Here are a few Young Adult works (in no particular order) for those inspired to dwell longer with the pain and beauty of souls in conflict.

10. Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo (J 949.742 F47z)

A non-fiction narrative written by eleven-year old Zlata Filipovic, the book recounts Zlata’s everyday life with typical worries and concerns (piano lessons, friend’s parties, etc.) But as the Bosnian conflict rages, Zlata writes candidly of food shortages and her growing fear. Poignant and telling, Zlata’s story demonstrates what war looks like through the eyes of a child.

9.  Maus I:  A Survivor’s Take:  My Father Bleeds History

Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus is a masterful retelling of his own father’s true story of living as a Jew during the Nazi regime. Spiegelman casts the Jews as mice, the Germans as cats, the Americans as dogs, and still more nations as other animals. The words and images combine not for a comic book effect, but for a chilling look at history.

8.  Weedflower (J K113w)

Like When the Emperor Was Divine, Cynthia Kadohata’s Weedflower tells the story of a Japanese-American family after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Twelve-year old Sumiko and her brother Tak-Tak are separated from their family when their uncle and grandfather area taken to a prison camp.  Sumiko befriends a Mohave boy and learns that the prison camp is situated on land taken from the Mohave reservation.  Sumiko begins to see the Mohave’s plight as similar to that of those imprisoned unjustly.

Book covers of Zlata's Diary, Maus, and Weedflower

7.  When My Name was Keoko

Sun-hee and her older brother, Tae-yul, live in Japanese-occupied Korea with their parents in Linda Sue Park’s book When My Name was Keoko. Sun-hee and Tae-yul study Japanese and speak it at school; their real names, their own language, their flag, the folktales Uncle tells them are all part of the Korean culture that is now forbidden. When World War II comes to Korea, Sun-hee is horrified when Tae-yul enlists to fight in the Japanese army to protect his aging uncle from being recruited. The bonds of creed, nation, and family are all stretched to the point of breaking, as cultures war for the hearts and minds of the world.

6.  Forge (Seeds of America)

Forge, sequel to Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains, tells the story of Curzon, a runaway slave who encounters the British while traveling away from his southern captors.  Curzon witnesses the desperate conditions on the battlefields of Valley Forge and the deteriorating state of armies on both sides.  The narrative of this book weaves together a former slave’s narrative with scenes that balance bloody gore with the humanity of fallen soldiers.

5.  Fallen Angels (J M99f)

Walter Dean Myers’ Coretta Scott King Award winning novel Fallen Angels tells the tale of Perry, a Harlem teenager who enlists in the service in the late 1960s.  His platoon meets the Vietcong while fighting for the US in the Vietnam War.  Questions of race and nationalism come to the forefront as Perry quickly transitions from boy to man.  He searches for redemption for himself, his fellow soldiers, and for the country that sends young men of color on the most dangerous missions to likely die.

Covers of When my Name was Keiko, Forge, and Fallen Angels

4.  When Zachary Beaver Came to Town (J H74w)

Kimberly Willis Hold weaves a dense, lyrical narrative in When Zachary Beaver Came to Town.  The titular Zachary Beaver is the “Fattest Boy in the World,” and arrives in Toby’s sleepy Texas town as the Vietnam War rages half a world away.  When the brother of Toby’s best friend dies in the battle, the conflict rock’s Toby’s life in ways greater than Zachary Beaver’s arrival or the departure of Toby’s own mother.  Though the war is more background to this novel, the ways in which international crises play out in a body’s oridnary life shine through.

3.  My Brother Sam is Dead (J C69m)

A book sure to become a classic of children’s litearture, James Lincoln Collier’s My Brother Sam is Dead tells the story of Tim Meeker, a boy who has looked up to his brother Sam all his life.  Everyone thinks Sam to be intelligent and courageous until he joins the Contintental Army (to the horror of his loyalist father).  Tim begins to realize the horror of war, especially when Sam’s death comes from a tragic, unexpected side effect of the conflict.

2.  A Long Walk to Water (J P213L)

This trim novel by Linda Sue Park weaves together the stories of Nya, who walks eight hours a day to retrieve water for her family, and Salva, who leaves his village to find his lost family.  The two tales, one from 2008 and one from 1985, tell the story of troubled war-torn Sudan and the children it forgot.  Nya and Salva are determined survivors whose tales are as hopeful as they are compelling.

Covers of When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, My Brother Sam is Dead, and A Long Walk to Water

1.  The Diary of Anne Frank (949.2 F85d)

Of course any list of YA war literature has to include Anne’s work.  Like Zlata, Anne’s story is decidedly non-fiction.   Her words are distinctly those of a young girl, but those of one brighter, more poised, and more adept at describing the unfolding horror around her than almost any other.  Anne’s thoughts and feelings transcend just one time and one war.  They speak for and of the children who have been, throughout history, trapped in adults’ conflicts.

Anne Frank

This post is the first in a series that will explore the topics found in this year’s Wheelock summer reading selection, When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka. 

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