Sarah J. Carlson

Contemporary Young Adult Author

Tag Archives: writing

Announcing a new book


I’m so excited to announce I have a new Young Adult book coming out next May from Turner Publishing Company.

Everything’s Not Fine is about seventeen-year-old Rose Hemmersbach, who aspires to break out of small town Sparta, Wisconsin and achieve her artistic dreams at Belwyn School for the Arts. Painting is Rose’s escape from her annoying younger siblings and her family’s one rule: ignore the elephant in the room, because talking about it makes it real.

That is, until Rose finds her mother dying of a heroin overdose. Kneeling beside her, Rose pleads with the universe to find a heartbeat. She does – but when her mother is taken to the hospital, the troubles are just beginning. Rose and her dad are left to pick up the pieces. Now Rose doesn’t have room for schoolwork, let alone to pick up a paintbrush. Until she’s forced to do the homecoming mural with Rafa, a new senior at Sparta High. Rose and Rafa don’t have an ounce of school spirit between them, but Rose discovers her brain still has room to paint, and, as Rafa starts opening up to her, that she can open up to him too.

But as Rose fights to hold everything together, and her dreams of the future start to slip from her grasp, she must face the question of what happens when – if – her mom comes home again. And, deep down, if Rose even wants her to.

I wrote Everything’s Not Fine to celebrate a teen discovering her own resilience after experiencing a life-shattering traumatic event. Professionally, I’ve been a school psychologist for twelve years. The biggest issues I see kids and teens facing are situations beyond their control. I wrote this book for them.

Stay tuned for the cover reveal and pre-order links!

ALL THE WALLS OF BELFAST and the Legacy of the Aftermath


My debut novel All the Walls of Belfastset in post-Troubles Belfast, Northern Ireland, centers around two teens grappling with the fallout of their parents’ pasts as they strive to define their own futures. But one ugly truth, not the peace wall between their neighborhoods, might tear them apart.

One of the core themes of All the Walls of Belfast revolves around the legacy of trauma being passed down to the next generation. I wanted to take a second to explore how the aftermath of their parents’ choices during the Troubles have fundamentally shaped both Danny and Fiona’s lives.

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.

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 (the Plantation of Ulster). 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 legacy of the Troubles still lingers, particularly in working class neighborhoods like the Falls (Catholic) and the Shankill (Protestant). Twenty years after the Troubles ended, the vast majority of Northern Ireland has moved on. But there are still dozens of peace walls dividing Catholic and Protestant areas. 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.

All the Walls of Belfast is set in 2012, so Danny and Fiona were small children when the Troubles officially ended with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Fiona didn’t even live in Belfast at this point; her mother fled to the United States when she was two. So neither of them can really even remember the Troubles. But their fathers were both heavily involved in the armed conflict. Danny’s father was in the Ulster Volunteer Force, a Protestant paramilitary. Fiona’s father was in the Provisional Irish Republican Army, the Catholic paramilitary. Both of their families were torn apart by the violence. Neither of them can remember it, but it has drastically shaped their lives.

Danny is well aware of his father’s involvement, and his father and community’s worldview has drastically shaped his own. Danny’s father is still involved in a Protestant paramilitary called the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and pressures Danny to follow in his footsteps, run guns, forcibly collect protection money from local businesses, and  sell drugs under the guise of protecting his Protestant culture. Danny takes pride in his Protestant culture and proudly takes part in activities that can be considered sectarian, like marching in flute band parades and building bonfires to celebrate the Twelfth of July, which celebrates the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over deposed Catholic King James II in 1690.

The working class neighborhood Danny has grown up in is religiously segregated. Danny’s never talked to anyone from the Falls. Or really a Catholic. 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. He refers to Catholics as Taigs, which is a derogatory word, but has no idea why he even calls them that. It’s just what his dad does. In the book, Danny works to re-write his worldview and ingrained prejudice.

Danny and Fiona were born in the same hospital in Belfast, but the choices of their parents lead to very different lives for them. In Fiona’s case,  her parents choices lead to her family being severed in two. She ended up in Wisconsin with her mom, and her father and half brothers remained in Belfast. There had been no contact for fifteen years until her father finally finds her. Fiona discovers her mom hid her from a father desperate to be in her life. After Fiona flies to Belfast to be reunited with the family she doesn’t remember, she walks into the aftermath oblivious both to the lingering impact on her father and half-brothers, and the forty-foot peace wall separating her father’s Catholic neighborhood, the Falls, from the Protestant neighborhood a few feet away, the Shankill, where Danny’s from. It was her father’s choices and political beliefs that lead to their family being torn apart in All the Walls of Belfast.

Both Danny and Fiona are left wondering what their lives would have been had they been born somewhere else, but both draw strength from either their families or their community.

All the Walls of Belfast, in part, is about reconciliation and defining your own future apart from the legacies of your parents’ pasts. In Danny’s case, it’s fighting to free himself from the burden of the past and create a define his own identity free of his family’s sectarian paramilitary involvement. In Fiona’s case, it’s grappling with who her father is—a freedom fighter or a terrorist?—and if his past must define their future.

Learn more about my research process for All the Walls of Belfast.

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.



ALL THE WALLS OF BELFAST Pre-order Bonus Materials


Turner Publishing Company is running a pre-order giveaway featuring a bonus prequel Fiona and Danny chapter. I wrote them exclusively for this and, I must say, it was so fun delving back into Fiona and Danny after like a year.

Exclusive prequel chapters for Fiona and Danny

Submit your receipt here.

I cannot believe it, but All the Walls of Belfast will hit shelves in like TWO WEEKS! By the way, here’s some of the stuff being said about ATWOB:

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.” ~ Foreword Reviews

“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

“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

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

To learn more about the setting and context of All the Walls of Belfast, check me out on Instagram. I’m doing a month-long tour of the world of ATWOB. I’m also doing a Library Request Raffle. Everyone who enters gets at least a signed custom book plate and some Belfast post cards. You can enter both!

Ahhh!!! I’m holding a published copy of my debut novel!


It’s a real, actual book. Still don’t totally believe it 😊😊😊 For the rest of the United States and Canada, All the Walls of Belfast is out March 12th, 2019. 🧡💚🧡💚