To get to know Sunrise Over Fallujah, you have to know a little something about a book called Fallen Angels. And to get to know about Fallen Angels, you need to know about the man who penned it: Walter Dean "Wrote One Book Every 2 ½ Year" Myers.
If you were to Google the word "prolific," you might as well be redirected to a profile of Myers. This dude wrote more than 110 books after his first one hit the bookstore shelves in 1969. In fact, even after he died in 2014, books that he wrote right before his death kept coming out with his name on them.
Yeah. The man kept busy.
Myers was famous for making black people, especially black teenage boys, the center of his stories. Sadly, that's pretty rare. According to the Cooperative Children's Book Center, only 10% of all children's and Young Adult books depict people of color. That's way less than their percentage in our population. And that's exactly where Myers tried to make a little change. (Source)
One of Myers' most famous—and most often banned—books is called Fallen Angels, published in 1988. It's about a boy named Richie Perry from Harlem who serves in the Vietnam War. Myers was a veteran himself, and the book focused on what seeing the horrors of war does to you, and how it separates you from people on the outside. (In other words, it's not about puppies and kitties and an overall good time.)
Sunrise Over Fallujah is a companion to Fallen Angels. It stars Richie's nephew, Robin Perry, who joins the army in 2003 at the beginning of the Iraq War. Like his uncle, Robin, who everyone starts calling Birdy, finds himself more and more distanced from people back home.
It's a little like déjà vu all over again.
The story is peppered with Birdy's letters to his family and uncle that downplay the violence he is seeing and basically say that everything is a-okay and super-duper. (He's not, um, exactly telling the truth.) But he's so affected by what he sees that he can't even talk to his uncle, who knows what war is like.
Sunrise Over Fallujah was published in 2010—after Barack Obama was elected on a platform that criticized the Iraq War. And you can definitely feel that hindsight in the book. Using scenes where native Iraqis share their opinions, scenes involving IEDs, and discussions on the difference between the attacks and what's being reported, Myers paints a picture of a war that doesn't go as planned.
In other words: you're going to need to watch about two dozen animal fail videos, and maybe also drink a Big Gulp-sized cocoa, after you finish this book. It's can be pretty tough going.
You might be thinking, "Okay, so this is one of those anti-war kind of novels, right?" Actually, the book doesn't have a clear-cut message or agenda about the Iraq War, or even war in general. Myers isn't really taking a stance on whether war is good or bad; his only message is that war isolates people.
And that message is pretty hard to argue with.
In fact, in Birdy's last letter, he says, "If there comes a day when someone says we have lost this war, I'll know that they are wrong, too." (15.53) He's adamant that sacrifices of the people who died weren't for nothing, that the act of sacrifice, in itself, is something to be admired.
See? We told you it doesn't really fit into that anti-war genre.
Because the events in this book affect your life even today.
And sure, we could also say the same thing about books like Johnny Tremain ("The Revolutionary War definitely had a teensy-weensy part in shaping America) or Across Five Aprils (the Civil War totally shook things up, and we still feel its echoes).
But we're going to get our Real Talk on for a quick second: the stuff that's portrayed in Sunrise Over Fallujah has had a massive, huge, so-big-it's-almost-indescribable effect on global politics in the world we live now.
Phew. After all that seriousness, we feel like we should tell a really lame joke. (What do you call a fake noodle? An impasta!)
The Iraq War may have happened over ten years ago, but it's hardly ancient history. Ever heard of ISIS? If you haven't, just turn on any news program. We're betting you'll hear that name in about five minutes.
Well, they took control of parts of Iraq when U.S. troops pulled out of the area. It takes rewinding back to when American troops entered the country in the first place to get a sense of how that might have happened. (And, you know, way back even further into the history of the Middle East. But we don't have that much time.)
And this period of history—when America entered Iraq—is what Sunrise Over Fallujah is all about. But Sunrise Over Fallujah isn't just political. It's also deeply personal.
Imagine you're leaving high school, and the army isn't engaged in a war. Maybe, like Jonesy, you join the army to make some money so you can eventually start a business. Or, like Coles or Marla, you join because you don't know what path you want to take. Or maybe you're like Miller or Birdy, and join because you want to help people. And then you're plunged into a war, in a part of the world that you know nothing about.
What would that be like?
Sunrise Over Fallujah isn't a war story from the point of view of a captain, or a general. It's about a private—a teenager. Birdy doesn't get to make decisions. All he can do is follow orders. He doesn't get to decide whether they're safe, or right. Birdy's in the shoes of much of the 2.5 million Americans who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan since 2003. (Source)
So, yeah. Sunrise Over Fallujah doesn't just give you a little background into a massive global conflict that's still raging today, it also puts you in the headspace of two and a half million Americans—the kind of people that, if you don't know already, might be next to you on the bus, in the airport, or even living next door.
Like we said: this book deals with some real-deal things that are affecting your life right now. So get to reading.
All Things Walter
Walter Dean Myers official author website, including a list of all his (many, many) books, lives here.
Here's a combo platter of links to documentaries, reports, and analysis of the Iraq War in the National Archives.
Remember how Birdy wrote that there was no way to keep track of Iraqi deaths? This website has been recording civilian deaths since 2003.
This timeline of the ending of the war lives on the White House's website. It's more about highlighting accomplishments than any past or continuing problems.
The Book At Hand
Scholastic asks Walter Dean Myers questions about Sunrise Over Fallujah, including its connection to Fallen Angels. Lots of smart quotables in this one.
A few months before Walter Dean Myers died, he wrote a New York Times opinion piece about why it's important for people of color to see themselves in literature. The amount of books for children and young adults starring people of color? Pathetically small.
Not for the Queasy
Remember how Birdy was being sent to Germany to get his wounds treated? This article shows what goes down in that type of hospital—wound descriptions and all.
Myers Likes Muffins
In December 2013, Myers did a Reddit AMA. People asked great, serious questions and questions that were…less serious. Scroll down to see what type of pie is Walter Dean Myers' favorite.
A Discovery documentary from 2004 talks about the first year of the Iraq War. It shows Baghdad, tanks, and footage from the ground.
This footage of Baghdad on April 9th, 2003 shows citizens tearing down the statue of Saddam Hussein.
A Real Survivor
Birdy's squad played "Survivor" as they drove around, but this interview with a soldier shows actually surviving the war is no joke.
Myers and War
Not only did Walter Dean Myers join the army as a young man—several members of his family have served. Here he talks about how his experience with war lead to him writing Fallen Angels, the companion book to Sunrise Over Fallujah.
From True Romances to Lit Awards
Walter Dean Myers tells the story of his life. It's a colorful, impressive tale.
Here's the song that pops into Birdy's head when he rides through the desert: "Real Situation" by Bob Marley. It's kind of upbeat, considering the lyrics.
In case you somehow don't think Myers did enough, he became the National Ambassador for Children's Literature in 2012. His slogan? "Reading is not optional."
Fair warning: these twenty striking images from the Iraq War aren't grotesque, but some of them do show injuries.
One Photo, Six Words
Soldiers were challenged to pair a photo with six words of story. Maybe these photos aren't as polished, but they do show you the war from the point of view of a soldier.
Birdy's description of Iraq may have been tinged with his sadness, but there's no denying that the country is beautiful. Here are photos of Iraq, minus war.