Sarah J. Carlson

Contemporary Young Adult Author

Tag Archives: All the Walls of Belfast

ALL THE WALLS OF BELFAST has been out for over a year


It’s so hard to believe All the Walls of Belfast, my debut novel that took over five years to write, has been out of over a year. It’s still a little surreal.


Here’s a bit more about All the Walls of Belfast:

The Carnival at Bray meets West Side Story in Sarah Carlson’s powerful YA debut; set in post-conflict Belfast (Northern Ireland), alternating between two teenagers, both trying to understand their past and preserve their future. Seventeen-year-olds, Fiona and Danny must choose between their dreams and the people they aspire to be.
Fiona and Danny were born in the same hospital. Fiona’s mom fled with her to the United States when she was two, but, fourteen years after the Troubles ended, a forty-foot-tall peace wall still separates her dad’s Catholic neighborhood from Danny’s Protestant neighborhood.
After chance brings Fiona and Danny together, their love of the band Fading Stars, big dreams, and desire to run away from their families unites them. Danny and Fiona must help one another overcome the burden of their parents’ pasts. But one ugly truth might shatter what they have…

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Praise for All the Walls of Belfast
“Compassionate, honest, and hopeful, All The Walls of Belfast celebrates the power of first love to build bridges and scale walls.
~ Marie Marquardt, author of Dream Things True
“A  powerful story about how the stones our parents throw in the past make ripples in our futures.”
~Christina June, award-winning author of It Started With Goodbye
“I loved it! The story kept building and building as I was falling deeper and deeper for these characters, Danny and Fiona, the Romeo and Juliet of Belfast…a stellar debut!” ― Jessie Ann Foley, award-winning author of The Carnival at Bray

All the Walls of Belfast is the gripping story of courage and redemption in turbulent post-conflict Northern Ireland. Brilliantly written, this vivid fiction meets reality novel reveals how two teens navigate life with the fallout of their parents’ actions. ~Angie Stanton, award winning author of Waking in Time
A Barnes & Noble Teen Most Anticipated Indie YA Book of 2019
“Set against the backdrop of the religious tensions in Northern Ireland [Carlson’s] debut features characters with stark religious differences and histories that must be overcome… an endearing story full of pain, love, and strength.” Booklist
“… a young adult romance with real meaning behind it, and it is a welcome addition to the genre.” ~Foreward Reviews
School Library Journal.:
Gr 8 Up-American teen Fiona travels to Belfast, Northern Ireland, to reunite with her father whom she has not seen since she was a toddler. Having no memories of her older half brothers or her birthplace, Fiona tentatively gets to know her family and explores her culture and community. She discovers her Catholic father was formally a key member of the IRA and his bombs killed many people during the Troubles, a time when ethno-nationalism led to violence between Catholics and Protestants. Fiona meets Danny, a Protestant who is studying for his school finals and wishes to join the British Army as a nurse against his gangster father’s wishes. The two begin to see one another, but their parents’ pasts threaten their relationship. Alternating chapters between Fiona and Danny establish their family dynamics and allow readers to root for them as their believable romance blossoms. Author Sarah Carlson creates an atmospheric narrative, explaining just enough of the current political and cultural landscape to understand how the walls running through Belfast still affect both communities on either side of it. The story doesn’t shy away from showing gritty reality and dysfunctional families that are partly due to the conflicts that ended only recently. VERDICT This contemporary drama has an appealing romance and the nuanced story may push teens to think critically about religious and cultural differences; and ultimately about forgiveness. A solid choice for all teen collections.-Nancy McKay, Ella Johnson Memorial Library, Hampshire, IL

Buy All the Walls of Belfast.

Derry Girls: A guide for Americans

derry_girls_ep2f_-_publicity_-_h_2018Image courtesy of Netflix

“Whatever you do, don’t slag off the Pope. We’re outnumbered!”

This line comes from an episode of Derry Girls. You may have noticed it trending on Netflix lately. Originally on Channel 4 in the U.K., “Derry Girls” follows the hilarious antics of five awkward and often misguided teens as they try to navigate the universal struggles of teen-dom. But against the not-so-universal backdrop of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Snappy one liners juxtaposed with armed sectarian conflict. All set to an amazing soundtrack of all your early nineties favorites.

One of the things that struck me during the years I spent researching for my debut Young Adult novel All the Walls of Belfast, set in post-Troubles Belfast, and Derry Girls is the tribalistic concept of identity and how it divides. Clive, the wee Protestant from East Belfast surrounded by Catholics, captures a deep-rooted them-versus-us fear well in that snappy bit of dialogue as he warns a suspected fellow Protestant against busting out the Protestant joke book.

Think the growing division in the United States between Democrats and Republicans, but to a whole new level; imagine physical walls between Democrat and Republican neighborhoods. And add in thirty years of sectarian bloodshed and hundreds of years of systematic oppression and violence by one group against the other.

The Troubles was not about religious beliefs. It was about history and ethnic/cultural identity. In the early 1600s , the King of England used Protestant Scottish and English people loyal to the Crown to colonize what is now Northern Ireland. He gave them lands belonging to local Irish Catholics resisting the Crown. Boiled down simply and speaking generally, Protestants see themselves as British and Loyalist or Unionist and wish for Northern Ireland to stay in the United Kingdom. Catholics see themselves as Irish and Republican (no affiliation to American Republicans) or Nationalist and are more likely to want a united Ireland free of British rule. In Northern Ireland today, the main political parties are still Unionist (Protestant affiliated) or Republican (Catholic affiliated).

The Troubles lasted from 1968 until 1998. Over 3600 people were killed and many more were injured. It began during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, after attempts at peaceful protest demanding equal rights for Catholics (“one man, one vote,” protection from job discrimination, access to equal resources such as quality housing) were met with violence on behalf of the British government and the mostly Protestant police force. At first, most of the violence on the Catholic side was in defense of their neighborhoods, which were under siege following the unrest. From there, the Provisional Irish Republican Army launched an armed campaign to force concessions around civil rights and to get a united Ireland. Protestant Loyalist paramilitaries took up arms out of fears of a united Ireland.

Derry Girls is told through the Catholic lens, but it’s really more about people trying to live normal lives as the sectarian conflict rages in the background. It highlights how normalized things like bombs being planted down the street and British soldiers searching your school bus with massive guns can become.

The first ten seconds Derry Girls brilliantly captures the conflict of identity: an armored British military car drives past two boys spray painting over the “London” part of a Londonderry road sign. Londonderry is it’s official name, but it was called Derry until the early 1600s, when the English government changed it to Londonderry to thank a bunch of London investors. Especially during the Troubles, you could tell tribal affiliation based on what a person called it. Catholics called Derry. Protestants called it Londonderry. The conflict of identity comes down even to the name of the city in which Derry Girls takes place.

When I was traveling around the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland researching for All the Walls of Belfast, I was struck by the fact that in the Republic of Ireland road signs called it Derry, but as soon as I crossed the border into Northern Ireland (and switched from kilometers and hour to miles per hour), road signs called it Londonderry.

Let’s go back to making fun of the Pope. Here’s the context. One of the Derry girls, Clare, starts calling into question why they hate Protestants. She decides to wear a Union Jack dress to a party thrown by someone from their all-girls school. Clive, the wayward Protestant from East Belfast, launches himself at Clare, assuming she’s Protestant because of the dress, and warns her they’re surrounded, so don’t say anything that might offend Catholics. Clive has spent days pretending to be Ukrainian, and being led around on a leash, because he’s so terrified these Catholic girls will figure out he’s a “Prod.”

He’d probably never actually talked to a Catholic before. And the Derry girls had probably never really talked to a Protestant either. In the first episode of Derry Girls one of the girls mentioned going to “Friends Across the Barricades,” a cross community program meant to bring Protestant and Catholic kids together.

While traveling and researching for my book, I learned, at least as of seven years ago, it’s not uncommon for people to go their entire childhood without having meaningful interactions with kids from the other side, especially in working class communities. In All the Walls of Belfast, one of the two main characters had never spoken to a Catholic in his eighteen years of life. But beyond not talking, deeply rooted fear and anger toward them can still linger, even in people who were children or not yet born during the Troubles because it’s passed on from one generation to the next.

A fact that shocked me: even though the Troubles have been over for more than twenty years, as of 2015, only 7% of children in Northern Ireland attended religiously integrated schools. The vast majority of Catholic and Protestant children don’t even go to school together.  Government agencies track school achievement data by religion like we track by race in the United States.

It makes one think about how easy it is now, especially with social media, to retreat into our echo chambers and vilify the other side as elitist or ignorant or wanting to murder unborn babies or letting school children be slaughtered as a sacrifice to protect gun rights. Us versus them. And not just our politicians. All of us.

Twenty years after the Troubles ended, the vast majority of Northern Ireland has moved on. But there are still 109 peace walls dividing Catholic and Protestant areas in Belfast. During my times in Northern Ireland, I asked people if the walls should come down. The answer from those living around them was pretty much always no. Because they were still afraid of them.

It was these walls that inspired me to write All the Walls of Belfast, a love story about a boy and girl separated by a forty-foot-tall peace wall, and the legacy of their parents’ pasts, long after the Troubles ended.

Seasons 1 and 2 of Derry Girls are currently available on US Netflix. All the Walls of Belfast is available on Barnes & Noble, Amazon, IndieBound, and Book Depository.

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Derry Girls Season 1 glossary:

Wain: small child or infant

GCSE: an exam taken after year fourteen (when students are 15 or 16) that determines whether a student can move on to A-Levels, which are usually required to get admitted to university.

College: a name for a kind of high school.

Slag off: making fun of someone; can be good natured.

Class: a good thing

Fanny: vagina

Quid: pounds (money)

Chippy: fish and chip shop

Slabber: a smart ass

Buck: engage in intercourse

Boak/boke: puke

Craic (pronounced crack): a good time or good thing

Fruit: derogatory term for a homosexual, used as an insult

Minger: unattractive or repulsive

Fringe: bangs

Balaclavas: ski masks

Prod: Protestant

Fenian: term for Catholics; can be derogatory

Tout: snitch to the authorities

Provo: member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army

Wee RA (pronounced ra) man: member of the IRA

The Free State: Republic of Ireland


A tour of ALL THE WALL OF BELFAST’s settings


My debut YA Contemporary All the Walls of Belfast has been out a month now! So hard to believe. To learn more, check it out on Goodreads. In honor of that, I wanted to share pictures of the setting. Before and while writing this book, I had the opportunity to visit all the settings in the book; all the pictures are mine.

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To learn more about the pictures, and a deeper context of the book, check out my Instagram story--a tour of the settings featured in ATWOB

My research process for ALL THE WALLS OF BELFAST


The creation of my debut novel All the Walls of Belfast (out March 12th, 2019 by Turner Publishing Company) was quite an undertaking and would not have been possible without the help of many people and a ton of research. I am an American telling a story that is not mine. As such, I feel it’s absolutely essential to share the process I used to create this story.

Travels in Northern Ireland

I first traveled to Belfast as a part of a group with the purpose of understanding the Troubles and its impact in July 2011. While there, I had the opportunity to go on political tours of the Shankill and the Falls lead by former Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Catholic Irish Republican Army (IRA) members, attended several different kinds of church services, toured museums, and spoke with many individuals who grew up in Belfast during the Troubles. I also was able to attend an Eleventh Night bonfire in the Tiger’s Bay area of Belfast and the Twelfth of July parade. I did the coastal drive to Giant’s Causeway/Dunluce Castle. Check out pictures of that journey here.

At the time, I had vague recollections of hearing about the Troubles when I was in middle school, but figured it was long over. And it is over. But I was shocked by the walls still separating working class Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods in Belfast. Also, in talking with people, in a lot of cases, things still felt raw and the history is ever-present, especially because those who engaged in violence on both sides held high positions in government. For example, I was quite struck when talking to a woman about the Deputy First Minister at the time, Martin McGuinness, who was a leader in the Provisional Irish Republican Army during the Troubles; she’d had family members killed by the IRA and saw his face all the time as one of the leaders of Northern Ireland and being celebrated as a peace maker.

This trip left me wanting to understand both the history of the Troubles and how it shaped current events and peoples’ lives. I also found a story to tell around the transmission of traumas to the next generation who may not have even been alive during the Troubles. Author’s note: All the Walls of Belfast is set in 2012; the two main characters were small children when the Troubles officially ended in 1998.

As I was researching All the Walls of Belfast, I returned to Belfast again during late June 2015; this time, I stayed in a hostel run by a cross community agency that was on the Falls Road, because I felt like my first time in Belfast I got more exposure to the Protestant/Loyalist side and wanted a better understanding of the Catholic/Republican side. I met up with and worked collaboratively with one of the editor friends I made to explore various setting locations featured in the book. We also attended one of the flute band parades in the Shankill. I went on three personalized, 1:1 political tours of both the Shankill and the Falls, one led by a former UVF member from the Shankill, the other lead by a former IRA member from the Falls; the third was a Catholic black taxi driver (for a slightly more balanced perspective, with very specific sites in mind). This gave me the opportunity to ask whatever questions I wanted about the Troubles and the lasting impact and to get a variety of perspectives to integrate. I toured sites specifically mentioned in the book. I went to various historically/culturally important sites including the Irish Republican History Museum, the Crumlin Road Gaol, and the newly opened Museum of Orange Heritage. Traveling mostly alone, I had the opportunity to capture the perspectives of people everywhere I went, from taxi drivers to hotel clerks to museum workers to friends of my editor friend. I also walked all over Belfast and scouted settings in the book. Pictures here.

Then I returned to Northern Ireland a third time in late June 2016. It also happened to be the day after the Brexit vote. Pictures here.

During these trips, I went to every setting location in the book, even the bathroom of a bus station and inside a Loyalist bar. It was interesting to see how some of some of the murals in the Shankill changed over the years. While writing, I also was constantly Google Maps Streetviewing everything.

Historical, Current Event, and Cultural Research 

All the Walls of Belfast is set in post-conflict Belfast, but understanding historical context is absolutely essential. I spent several years researching the history of the Troubles and specific events such as Bloody Sunday, the Burning of Bombay Street, the Omagh bombing, to name a few. I also studied the history of the Irish Republican Army, the Plantation of Ulster, the formation of the Ulster Volunteer force and other paramilitaries.

As I tried to wrap my mind around the lingering impact of the Troubles, on a daily basis, I tracked current events in Belfast and Northern Ireland (particularly December 2013 through Spring 2016) in local newspapers with a variety of different perspectives, including the Belfast Telegraph, The Newsletter, Irish News, the BBC, and Irish Republican News. I catalogued both UVF and IRA activities from articles to ensure I was accurately capturing a sense of the paramilitary groups and activities. Several of the events in All the Walls of Belfast are based on actual events that happened in 2012, when the book is set, so I read numerous articles and watched newscasts to capture it. I also watched a multitude of videos of riots, bonfires, and flute band parades. I researched the history of things such as the Orange Order, the culture around Blood and Thunder bands, the philosophies of modern day dissident republicans, reports on the impact of paramilitaries on modern day youth (as of the early 2010s), and efforts at cross community engagement and reconciliation.

Additionally, I read research articles about the current status of peace walls in Northern Ireland, their physical structures and how they’ve been fortified over the past few decades; working class Protestant and Catholic youth perspectives on the post-Troubles situation and paramilitaries; educational achievement among boys from Protestant working class communities; and the activities of paramilitaries and their adherence to the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Then I also researched things like the educational system in Northern Ireland, the process to enlist as a British army officer, clothing styles and brands popular with different classes in Northern Ireland, and even how to open a current (checking) account at Ulster Bank. I researched the meanings of commonly seen graffiti and several of the memorials in both the Shankill and the Falls.

Dialect Research

In addition to observations during trips to Belfast, I also did tons of research around dialect, starting with the subtle and obvious differences between American and British English, which are immense, and then taking it further and delving into specifically Belfast dialect. I may or may not have a dialect spreadsheet with over 1,000 entries. I used a variety of forms of media, including books, documentaries, movies, TV shows from Northern Ireland, and Facebook groups. I watched interviews with teenagers from working class Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods to get a sense of their world view. Living in Singapore, where British English is standard, and having many English and Scottish friends, helped tremendously.

I also worked very closely with two developmental editors from Belfast as well as three readers from Belfast to examine how I was capturing culture, language, and perspective (both historic and current). One of my favorite outcomes from this, which I mention in the Acknowledgements, was the “List of Suggested Swearwords” for working class Belfast boys.

Beyond the Book

Many interesting events unfolded as I wrote All the Walls of Belfast. The decision to fly the British flag over Belfast City Hall only on certain days in December 2012 sparked violent riots and protests that lasted months. In the summer of 2013, a Protestant Loyalist parade being re-routed out of a Catholic area lead to a protest camp being set up for 1200 days near a Catholic area, which also triggered attacks by dissident Republicans against police guarding this camp. In September 2013 Richard Haass (a former US diplomat) worked with Protestant Loyalist Parties, Catholic Republican Parties, and the smaller united parties to try and negotiate resolution around some of the biggest issues hampering the peace process: parades, flags, and the legacy of the Troubles. These talks ended without a deal, with flags and symbols being the toughest area.

Brexit happened. As I said, I was in Northern Ireland the day after the vote. Loyalist areas had signs saying “Vote Leave” and Republican areas had signs saying “Vote Stay.” In talking with a loyalist minutes after he found out, he was happy with the outcome, largely due to concerns around immigrants, but also worried about implications for the economy. Listening to the radio on the drive down the Antrim Coast to Belfast, questions were flying around the unique implications for Northern Ireland: their economic and political ties to both the UK and the Republic of Ireland and what would happen to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

In 2018 the power sharing power sharing  government between Republican and Loyalist political parties, created as a result of the Good Friday Agreement which ended the Troubles, also crumbled over disagreements between Protestant Loyalist and Catholic Republican parties. As of now (February 2019), power sharing has still not been restored.

If you want to check out a few of the videos I used while researching, swing by my YouTube channel.



Library Request Raffle: ALL THE WALLS OF BELFAST


My debut YA contemporary novel All the Walls of Belfast is coming out on March 12th, 2019. Less than two months!

Send me a screenshot of your request for All the Walls of Belfast from your local library, and be entered to win one of three swag prize packs.

Here’s a sample of what they will include:

Each swag pack will include one coaster and two tea bags featuring Northern Irish slang. Both are direct from Belfast, Northern Ireland (coaster from Belfast Times and tea bags by Victoria Mae). The tea is also Danny’s brand of choice–Barry’s. The swag pack also includes a key chain featuring Bucky Badger, official mascot of the University of Wisconsin, where Fiona’s from. Additionally, it includes Fiona’s bracelets, an All the Walls of Belfast button, an autographed custom book plate, post cards, and stickers (see below).

As long as supplies last, everyone who submits proof of library request will receive a signed custom book plate, a postcard featuring pictures I took in Northern Ireland, and stickers featuring lyrics from Fiona and Danny’s favorite band, Fading Stars, and Danny’s mantra.

Now through 3/11/19. US and Canada only. Sorry, All the Walls of Belfast is currently only being released in US and Canada. No purchase necessary. Email screenshots to

Stay tuned for more information about the pre-order campaign!