What to Read Now: Children’s Experiences in War Zones

It should go without saying that children bear the brunt of war as a nation’s most vulnerable citizens. Yet Graça Machel’s 1996 UNICEF report on the impact of war on children was new in both scope and topic. Why have we neglected this issue? 

In my own explorations, I’ve been struck by how exile is a universal experience of young people who spend all or part of their childhood in a war zone. Exile is both literal—leaving behind a country, family, or home—and emotional—leaving behind the person they once were or could have become. 

The following list of books features child or teen protagonists whose strength is revealed within the midst of war, a strength that comes via great sorrow, loss, and sacrifice. 



Song for NightSong for Night

Chris Abani 

In this lyrical novella narrated by a child soldier, we travel across a West African country as fifteen-year-old My Luck searches for his platoon. His journey takes him to places that haunt him because of the things he did and the atrocities he witnessed. Meanwhile, he exorcises the demons from his personal past as well: My Luck’s split identity (growing up with a Muslim father and Catholic mother) mirrors the bloody conflict in his country, a conflict that has made him an orphan with no place to call home. 


We Need New NamesWe Need New Names

NoViolet Bulawayo 

Ten-year-old Darling and her family have been victims of the state violence aimed at dissidents who agitate for change in Zimbabwe. Darling and her friends reenact the violence they’ve experienced and witnessed in brutal games that startle reporters and NGO workers. As the aging and increasingly paranoid Mugabe holds onto power, young people leave the country in droves. The second half of the novel details Darling’s experiences as a teenager in exile in America—her cultural dislocation, the distant war in Afghanistan where her US-born cousin is a soldier, and her growing emotional distance from the tragedy in Zimbabwe. 


Young Adult

Between Shades of GrayBetween Shades of Gray

Ruta Sepetys

Fifteen-year-old Lina loves boys, drawing, her cousin, and her father, a professor in Soviet-occupied Lithuania. Then one night, in 1941, the Soviet police come. She has to leave everything she loves behind, clinging only to her mother and brother as the train takes them north to a forced labor camp. Loss piles upon loss in this coming-of-age story set in a Siberian gulag. Sepetys paints Lina’s experiences in delicate, layered strokes, revealing the humanity of both prisoner and prison guard in unique and subtle ways. 


Picture Book

Mali Under the Night SkyMali under the Night Sky: A Lao Story of Home

Youme Landowne 

For nine years during the Vietnam War, the United States conducted a bombing mission every eight minutes within Laos. In Mali under the Night Sky, a true story, a young girl named Mali flees her beloved home in Laos, seeking safety on foreign soil. Like many refugees, Mali ended up in a Thai jail. But even in prison, she doesn’t give up hope, finding solace in memories of home.

J. L. Powers (jlpowers.net) is the award-winning author of three novels for young adults (The Confessional, This Thing Called the Future, and Amina) and is editor of an anthology of personal essays, That Mad Game: Growing Up in a Warzone. She is editor of The Pirate Tree: Social Justice and Children’s Literature (thepiratetree.com) and co-collaborator of Mother, Writer, Mentor (motherwritermentor.com). She teaches English and creative writing at Skyline College in San Bruno, California. 

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