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Lives less ordinary: coming of age in conflict zones

Young adult fiction loves the supernatural. Our heroes come of age in fantasy worlds of wizards, vampires, and werewolves. Their stories are often set in the re-imagined past or the distant future.

But for as long as humans have existed, young adults came of age shaped by the brutal realities of war and conflict. The innocence of childhood shattered, generations of young men and women returned home molded or broken by their experiences in battle. And as long as humans have told stories, these experiences have influenced the narratives and legends we all know - from Homer's Odyssey to Tolkein's Lord of the Rings

The modern world is no different. While most young adults are now lucky enough to be sheltered from humanity's ugly side, many aren't. These books give young readers a peek into their experiences.

Soldier X

The most destructive conflict the world has ever seen is also probably one of the most written about. But rarely do we see compelling stories come from the other side of the war.

Half-German half-Russian Erik is sixteen when he's drafted to fight in the Wehrmacht. Sent to the slaughter of the Eastern front, Erik sees unimaginable horror and is left lying wounded on the battlefield after a disastrous offensive.

Passing himself off as a Russian soldier, Erik is taken to a Russian hospital where he falls in love with a nurse. Here, his survival depends on keeping his German identity secret.

Written at the blinding pace of a video game, Soldier X is graphic and unflinching in its depiction of war, but treats all of its characters with warmth and humanity. From a glut of WWII literature, this is a standout work.


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The People of Forever are not Afraid

Conscripted into the Israeli military after high school, Yael, Avishag and Lea alleviate the tedium of duty by flirting, gossiping, and daydreaming.

War is often described as "long periods of interminable boredom punctuated by moments of terror," and the days drag by as the girls train for the possibility of violence.

Over the course of their initial conscription and subsequent re-enlistment, the girls' friendship evolves - propelled by snappy dialogue and familiar teenage dramatics. But with war looming on the horizon, their likable and bubbly characters will be contrasted with the moments of terror they endure together.

The People of Forever is a war story stripped of all pomp and pretense, and at its core is about the treacherous journey to adulthood set against an even more treacherous backdrop.

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Tasting the Sky

A coming of age tale from the other side of the Israel/Palestine conflict, Tasting the Sky is a portrait of a childhood lived under the hardest circumstances.

Ibtisam grows up quickly, while bombs fall on Ramallah during the 1967 Six Day War. Separated from her family and living in a refugee camp, Ibtisam finds hope when she learns the first letter of the Arabic alphabet.

From that moment, she takes solace in language, and uses it to make sense of her world. In the rubble of the West Bank, her letters to a foreign pen pal keep her sane.

Tasting the Sky is written in poetic prose, and avoids getting bogged down in the politics of the conflict. Instead, Ibtisam's memoir is the captivating story of one girl's hope, fear, and will to survive.

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Persepolis' protagonist Marji sees more in this graphic novel than most adults see in a lifetime.

The daughter of committed Marxists and great-granddaughter of Iran's last emperor, Marji lives through the fall of the Shah's regime, the Islamic revolution, and the war with Iraq.

Marji is an inquisitive, likable and innocent character, and the simple childlike prose gives the reader a child's-eye view of massively significant events. We're right there with Marji when the new regime segregates her school by gender and forces girls to wear the veil. We feel her fear as her family run to the basement, Iraqi missiles falling in Tehran.

Backed up with stark black and white graphics, Persepolis is funny, haunting, mature and memorable. A must-read.

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The Twelfth Day of July

Written at a time when the Troubles in Northern Ireland were entering their bloodiest phase, The Twelfth Day of July is a familiar story of forbidden love.

Sadie and Kevin live in the same city, and play on the same streets. Sadie is a Protestant however, while Kevin is a Catholic, and sectarian violence is a constant threat to their developing relationship.

Great YA fiction can be enjoyed by teenagers and adults alike, and The Twelfth Day of July hits this mark. Lingard's candid writing brings the struggles of the time to life, and makes us genuinely care about Kevin and Sadie.

Kevin and Sadie's relationship grows over three more books in the series. All come highly recommended.

From the killing fields of the eastern front to the checkpoints and watchtowers of Israel, via revolutionary Iran and Northern Ireland, all of our protagonists search for normality in extraordinary times.

We share their hopes and dreams, and experience unimaginable danger alongside them. Like our heroes, we're left changed by the journey.

Irish journalist and writer. Drinker of tea, lifter of weights, debater of politics.


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