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Teens in Wartime
By Hilary Williamson
November, 2003

I've noticed a trend in review popularity over the last months towards teen books that place young protagonists in wartime situations - not especially surprising given the current state of the world. Let's look at some of them.

A perennial favorite is John Marsden's Tomorrow series ... Tomorrow When the War Began, The Dead of the Night, A Killing Frost, Darkness Be My Friend, Burning for Revenge, and The Night is for Hunting. It pits seven Australian teenagers against an enemy whose forces have invaded their country and imprisoned their families. This series stands out for its gritty realism, but I especially like the way the author carefully develops his characters through episodes, showing how different temperaments deal with extreme stress, death, hatred and revenge. These young friends have plenty of opportunities to explore their dark sides, and some of them die. But Ellie, who speaks for all of them, muses about the morality of their actions, and they usually try to do what is right.

Moving northwards, William Bell's Forbidden City thrusts a Canadian teen (traveling with his news cameraman father) right in the middle of events at the Tian An Men Square massacre in China. There, young Alex witnesses atrocity and learns first hand that war is not a game. Lloyd Alexander's classic Westmark trilogy - Westmark, The Kestrel and The Beggar Queen - also stands out. His setting a fantasy world, Alexander does a remarkable job of tempering his hero in the fires of war - Theo evolves from a pacifist to a berserker resistance leader and back again. And we mustn't forget J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings - which at its heart is, I believe, about the damage (the fading that Frodo experiences) that violence does to those linked to it - and Orson Scott Card's Ender series, which involves children (at first unknowingly) in war.

All of these fictional stories raise questions that stay with you, about the effects of wartime on those involved in it. There are also true tales of young people who have been victims of war. In his inspiring Of Beetles & Angels, Mawi Asgedom shares his family's experiences as refugees from Ethopian civil war, resettling in the United States. And, in A Child in Prison Camp, artist Shizuye Takashima speaks personally about the WW II internment, when Canadians of Japanese descent were stripped of rights and property and sent to internment camps inland.

Theresa Ichino has this to add to her review ... 'I too am of Japanese-Canadian descent. My parents were barely out of their teens when they were interned, dispossessed and brought to southern Alberta from Vancouver. My tiny mother and her family were put to labour on a beet farm. They were "housed" in chicken coops. My father, once an energetic and prosperous entrepreneur, was set to work in a prison camp for German POWs who had been captured overseas and shipped to Canada. Trusting the government's promise that all would be straightened out, my parents' families locked their doors and obeyed orders to report for evacuation.

My mother's family lost their fishing boat; my father's, their thriving business in the heart of Vancouver. They also lost all the personal possessions they had left in their homes, as well as the homes themselves. Despite this, they are not bitter. They worked tirelessly to rebuild their lives and to give their children the education and opportunities they were denied. My parents are in their eighties now and a living reminder to me of courage and grace in the face of hardship. There are too many and worse injustices happening daily all over the world. As Takashima says at the end of her tale, we need to remember and to fight to prevent injustice.'

What more can be said? All these books teach us about the evils of war, not just in terms of deaths, but also in the fear, suspicion and intolerance that it fosters. They're all worth reading, re-reading, and remembering.

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