KYDYAC – Tomorrow, When The War Began by John Marsden

by Stephanie Van Schilt , August 13, 20129 Comments

Kicking off our final week of the KYD YA Championship with a bang, Kate O’Donnell pulls out the YA big guns with her discussion of John Marsden’s beloved Tomorrow, When the War Began.

As kids, we took the game Spotlight very seriously. Spread out through the bush in the dark, burrowed in damp leaf litter, or perched up a tree, trying not to laugh or breathe. Sometimes you’d be spotted and have to sit on a tree stump until some fast-running hero came and freed you and the game went on. It was cutthroat and, if not to the death, then to the bruise, graze and twisted ankle.

Then Tomorrow, When The War Began was released and I thought: this shit just got real. John Marsden’s novel – the first of the successful Tomorrow Series – quickly became one of the best and most popular books for teenagers and I’m convinced it’s the most significant Australian YA book of all time.

After all, it’s an adventure story, which is always going to appeal to readers and non-readers, and to girls as well as boys. Young people fighting enemy soldiers, living off the land, explosions, guns, combat? Those pages practically turn themselves. And, it made me pretty sure I could be a teenage guerrilla fighter too, especially given my mad Spotlight skills.

Marsden gave us Ellie, this kick-arse female protagonist who is ballsy and brave but tender underneath. He gave us a cast of characters we could identify with, a group of people we loved and cared about (and mourned for) as if they were really real.

And finally, the kicker: he set it in our backyard. The invasion of Australia by an unnamed country in Tomorrow was – and still is – so terribly, and frighteningly, believable.

The writing is direct, thoughtful and strong. Marsden has talked often of the way Ellie’s voice, and this story, came to him all at once. It’s also so authentically teenage and real. Through Ellie, Marsden never speaks down to his audience and he doesn’t shy away from packing an emotional punch. He delivers a swift kick to the heart, as well as the face.

Ellie’s powerful narration also made readers – at least this reader – first seriously consider the ethics and politics of war. She’s a country girl whose world has shattered overnight, who has to challenge her own concepts of right and wrong, of good and evil. I loved her for her contradictions, her guilt at not being captured, her terror, her bravery, her mistakes and her feelings of love and lust even during wartime.

For all the talking and feelings, the action scenes in Tomorrow still blow your mind. Tension sometimes builds like a slow burn, but then at other times we’re off in a terrifying split second. The attacks the group pull off might seem improbable to some, but because the reader is there as plans are made by capable farm kids with practical skills (and shotguns), the element of surprise and a whole lot of dumb luck – it’s all totally believable. Whether they’re blowing up ride-on mowers or bridges you can smell the diesel fuel, hear the bullets, feel the sweat and see the blood.

You all know what I’m talking about. You’ve read it. You debated who the occupying force might be. You flipped repeatedly and secretly to the sex scene in book two and cried when the amazing, terrible thing happens at the end of the third book. You imagined yourself in their situation, physically and emotionally.

And that’s the power of this book. In Tomorrow, When the War Began, it’s as though John Marsden took all of our games of Spotlight and gave them real consequences. From the moment when Ellie and the gang come back from Hell and find the dogs dead, their world has changed. And ours has changed too.

Kate O’Donnell works as a publishing assistant at Hardie Grant Egmont. She is an ex-bookseller, blogs at bean there, read that and tweets occasionally as @readingkate.

If you want Tomorrow, When The War Began to win the KYD YA Championship, you can cast your vote for it here! Vote now and you can also go into the draw to win some amazing prizes.

  • Danielle Binks


    One of my favourite things about this series (upon a second, closer reading) was that there is so much menacing mystery surrounding the invaders. It’s that great horror technique of not explaining too much about the monster, so that readers project their own fears onto the page. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.

    John Marsden entirely changed my reading landscape. The first 2 books of his I read were ‘Checkers’, followed by ‘Letters From the Inside’ – and then I dived into the ‘Tomorrow’ series. Each and every time he sucker-punched me in the reading, but each and every time I felt better for having read his books.

    Great championing effort, Kate!

    • Kate O’D


  • Judith Ridge

    The link to Kate’s blog doesn’t seem to be working.

    • Stephanie Van Schilt

      Thanks Judith – fixed now. Sorry about that!

      Danielle – I agree with everything you say about Marsden changing your reading landscape. I vividly remember my Grade 4 teacher reading TWTWB to our class. It was the only time we were willfully and collectively still, quiet and completely engrossed. The creased pages of many a Marsden book accompanied me on school camps, were pleasantly required reading for school assignments or just favoured texts picked up for leisure. Each book from the ‘Tomorrow’ series – as well as the rest of his work – provided perspective and adventure where ever I went. TWTWB is the seminal Australian YA classic to me.

      Kate – thanks again for a wonderful post.

      • Kate O’D

        Thanks Steph!

  • Jordi

    ‘You debated who the occupying force might be. You flipped repeatedly and secretly to the sex scene in book two and cried when the amazing, terrible thing happens at the end of the third book. You imagined yourself in their situation, physically and emotionally.’
    Yes. This. So much! And as much so when I’ve re-read it as an adult, as when I was a teenager!

    Tomorrow When The War Began certainly stands the test of time, and has carved itself a very solid space in the history and identity of Australian YA. Great write-up, thank you, Kate.

    • Kate O’D

      So glad I’m not actually the only one…

      Cheers, Jordi!

  • lisa dempster

    Such a spot-on review, nice one Kate. MAN DO I LOVE THIS BOOK. The whole series, yes, but this book is the best, best, best. The dead dog scene = killer, one of the best scenes in Aussie lit ever imo. It still gets my right in the guts, every time.

    A remarkable YA book.

    • Kate O’D

      Cheers, Lisa. I’m so glad you love it too!


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