The subjects of combat ethics, PTSD, and sexual identity in the military might seem like exceptionally heavy ones for young adult literature…until you remember that enlistment begins squarely in the age range of YA’s target audience. Regardless, these books will resonate with readers of all ages who’ve been touched by PTSD, military families/communities, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” or any other realities of living in 21st-century wartime America.
The Impossible Knife of Memory, by Laurie Halse Anderson
No one who’s read Anderson’s earlier works (Speak, Wintergirls) will be shocked to find that her newest release—narrated by the daughter of an Iraq vet suffering from intense PTSD—is both beautifully and brutally written. Protagonist Hayley is dark, funny, layered, strong, suffering, trying, and everything in between, and watching her grow through her pain as she struggles to find some happiness in yet another new phase of her “childhood” is a gripping experience that truly runs the emotional gamut.
Something Like Normal, by Trish Doller
Travis is home on leave from the Marines, trying to reconcile his old identity with how his experiences have changed him, and struggling to make those who’ve always known him understand that he isn’t who he once was, and why. It doesn’t help that his life has fallen apart, and that he’s returned to find that even his family isn’t the wholly dependable unit he left behind. But the combination of love and some closure goes a long way, and this was a read I found so impossible to put down that I just…didn’t.
If I Lie, by Corinne Jackson
This is the story of a girl left behind by her soldier best friend and the secret they share, but it’s also the story of a town left behind—one that’s swaddled in hero worship and black-and-white ideals. Quinn lives with the pain of everyone in town, including her father, thinking she committed the unthinkable act of betrayal against a saint—perfectly on par with the theme of the personal sacrifices we make for what we deem to be the greater good, and when it’s time to put yourself first. Of all the books on this list, this one definitely drew the most tears from me, but they were by no means entirely sad ones.
The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt
Boaz has returned after three years in the Marines—only he hasn’t. Not really. So his younger brother Levi takes it upon himself to figure out exactly where his brother’s mind has gone off to, and how to bring him fully back home. It’s a thoughtful and heartwarming story of reconnection and building understanding, with the added layer of contrast to the mandatory army service served in Israel, the family’s country of origin.
Personal Effects, by E.M. Cokie
Matt’s brother, T.J., has died in combat, leaving Matt with their terrifying father, a lot of rage, some fond memories…and not much else. Until his personal effects show up, sending Matt on a journey to learn about the love and the life he never knew his brother had, giving him the strength to finally take control of his own.