Tomorrow When the War Began


Author: John Marsden

Publication: 2001, Perfection Learning

Pages: 277

Overall Rating:

Rating for Action:

Quantity of Action:

Age Category: 13+

Brief Summary: A group of Australian teens led by Ellie go camping in the bush for a few days.  They come back to find their homes deserted, their dogs dead, and their families imprisoned.  They country has been invaded, and now they have to decide whether to hide or to fight back.

Age of Main Character: 16 or 17

What I Liked the Most: Unlike Red Dawn (both the 1984 and 2012 versions), Tomorrow When the War Began felt at least moderately realistic in its take on teens fighting back against an enemy invasion.  There are no pitched gun battles with the untrained teens somehow holding their own against a superior force of hardened soldiers.  Ellie and her friends fight back, but they do it in relatively small, creative ways, and though they do fight they spend the majority of their time simply trying to survive – setting up a hidden camp, finding supplies, and trying to figure out what happened to their parents.  They are real kids with real fears.  They miss their families, they worry about freezing up at a critical moment, they turn to their friends for love and support.  None of us can know how we’d react in the face of an invasion, but if you’re looking for a relatively realistic take on the subject, forget Red Dawn and check out what Marsden has to offer.

The other enticing thing about this book was its setting.  Most YA fiction, and indeed most English language fiction in general, comes from either the US or the UK.  Books out of Australia are relatively rare and this was a fun opportunity to dive into a somewhat different culture.  That’s doubly true as the book is set in a remote part of the country.  Ellie and her friends are a mix of townies and rurals – who live on sheep farms and work stock with their families – and when it’s time to run, they go bush.  So we get to see them living off the land in the wilds of back country Australia.  Pretty cool.

What I Liked the Least: This is probably the elephant in the room for most any invasion story – how realistic is the scenario?  In the recent update of Red Dawn, the US gets invaded by North Korea.  And even if you’ve never seen the movie, you can’t help but laugh at just how preposterous that sounds.  Marsden avoids that somewhat by never identifying who it is that’s invaded the country, but the problem doesn’t really go away.  Australia’s a big place with a tough, well equipped, modern army and a big ocean around them.  With modern satellite technology, the idea of a surprise invasion there is somewhat hard to take seriously.  And the fact that we don’t know who did it is almost as bad as naming a country.  It makes Ellie and her friends feel woefully ignorant – that their country was in such a dire dispute with another nation they got invaded, and Ellie and her friends have no clue who they’re fighting – nor apparently do any of the other adults they happen to run into.  It just makes the whole scenario feel that much less believable.

How Good was the Action? This is a somewhat delicate question.  Like I said above, one of the reasons I like this book was that it felt fairly realistic.  And realistically, a bunch of untrained teens fighting a foreign invasion aren’t going to engage in a lot of hot and heavy action – not unless they want to wind up very dead very fast.  So the actions they take are more manageable in scale.  Great.  The problem was that Marsden’s approach to those scenes often felt clinical.  He describes what Ellie’s doing in minute detail, but rarely lets his language really rock.  While there were a few scenes early in the book where I felt Ellie’s panic and the rush of adrenaline, the big finale where she and her friends blow up a bridge came off as almost detached.  I knew exactly what Ellie and her friends were doing, but I couldn’t get into it.

How Engaging was the Story?  Given the size of the cast (Ellie is hiding out with seven friends) I felt like Marsden did a great job of making most of the characters feel authentic.  A few were too minor to really stand out, at least in book one of the series, but I knew enough and cared enough about the rest to get attached to their fate.  And Marsden deepens that through the ongoing interplay of relationships as the teens move from holiday campout to fear and survival.  I knew what they were doing, I knew why they were doing it, and I cared about what happened.  There are no quirky characters here, no one wildly unique, but a solid group of teens with individual personalities and fluctuating relationships, all engaged in a life or death struggle.  And that was more than enough to keep me pleasantly engaged.      

Overall Assessment: A thoughtful, realistic take on teens trapped in an enemy invasion, set against the colorful backdrop of the Australian bush.

Profanity: Minimal.

Sex: Some kissing and a bit of fantasizing, but nothing graphic.

Violence: Some.  One of the teens gets shot, but we don’t see that.  We only see it after the fact, when they’ve already been wounded for a couple of days.  Soldiers die, but again we never see that because by the time it happens Ellie and her friends are already on the run.


  1. Gordon Rottman says:

    This is the first of a series of seven book followed by a spin off series, “The Ellie Chronicles,” of three more books. Over all this is one of my favorite series and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The action and realism overall is very good as are the characterizations. There are some very intense action scenes and chases in the later books. On one occasion I was so caught up in the action that I tore a couple of pages when turning them trying to keep up with the action. Highly recommended. By the way, a movie was made of the first book and was reasonably good. Unfortunately the movie of the second book fell through as the first movie never caught on in America. “Tomorrow When the War Began” is rated as the most popular YA series in Australia.

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