A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

Book review by
Lucinda Dyer, Common Sense Media
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier Book Poster Image
Unforgettable story of young boy forced to become a killer.

Parents say

age 18+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

age 15+
Based on 3 reviews

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

For many readers, this will be the first time they've heard of child soldiers and it will be a violent and unflinching introduction to the fate suffered by thousands of boy and girls around the world. Readers who want to learn more about the plight of children who live in war zones can find information, photos, and videos at the UNICEF and Human Rights Watch websites.

Positive Messages

Your past does not have to be your future. With help -- and courage -- you can turn your life around.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Ishmael never gave up. So many times, he could simply have sat down in the forest and waited to die, but he kept going. He found the courage to take advantage of the opportunities offered him at the rehabilitation center -- being a spokesman for the center and traveling to New York to speak at the United Nations -- and built on them to create a new life for himself.


The violence in A Long Way Gone is constant and unbelievably brutal. Rebels, as well as the soldiers with whom Ishmael and his friends fight, kill indiscriminately -- women, children, babies. He describes one town as having "air that smells of blood and burnt flesh." Too many people to count are stabbed, shot, mutilated, and burned alive. There were times when he found killing "as easy as drinking water." Ishmael participates in a contest in which each boy soldier cuts a prisoner's throat. The one whose prisoner dies first wins.


"F--k" is used once.


Ishmael is a huge fan of LL Cool J, Run-DMC, and Henry D & the Boyz. In camp, soldiers watch the Rambo movies and want to "implement his techniques."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Both adult and boy soldiers become addicted to a dangerous mix of drugs -- "white capsules," marijuana, and cocaine mixed with gunpowder -- used to both hype themselves up and numb themselves to the horrors around them. Ishmael goes through a long and painful withdrawal while being rehabilitated.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier is the critically acclaimed memoir of Ishmael Beah, who was a child soldier during Sierra Leone's civil war. Orphaned at 12, Ishmael would walk through a war-ravaged countryside, often starving and always afraid, until at 13, he found refuge with government soldiers. Soldiers who would turn him into a killer. For the next three years, Ishmael would witness or take part in unimaginable acts of violence that are often graphically described in the book. Violent death is constant and pervasive, with countless men, women, children, and babies stabbed, shot, mutilated, or burned alive. One town he enters is described as having "air that smells of blood and burnt flesh." At 16, UNICEF workers gained his release and he was sent to a rehabilitation center for boy soldiers where he found a chance to rebuild his life. Beah would go on to finish his education in the United States and become UNICEF's Advocate for Children Affected by War. First published in 2007, A Long Way Gone was a New York Times best-seller. It has been translated into more than 40 languages and is sometimes assigned in school. 

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written bySunny H August 29, 2019
For a young person, the violence needs to be evaluated individually and accompanied with thoughtful discussion with a trusted and sensitive adult. I would not a... Continue reading
Teen, 15 years old Written byVT Hokies January 25, 2021

Powerful and horrific

I can't comfortably say that this book is good without mentioning how painful it is. It is an extremely hard read and is not for the faint of heart. Howev... Continue reading
Teen, 13 years old Written byLevel-Headed Re... January 2, 2021

Extremely Mature- But Great Values

I originally read this book when I was 10, and now reading it at 13 for a school project, it would have been a lot better to wait to read it. Although I only r... Continue reading

What's the story?

As A LONG WAY GONE begins, Ishmael Beah is 12 and living with his mother and two brothers in a rural town in Sierra Leone, West Africa. He loves dancing, rap music, and Shakespeare and can recite monologues from Julius Caesar and Macbeth. The civil war that's gripping Sierra Leone still seems a long way off. But while he and his older brother are away, rebels attack the town, his family disappears, and the boys are left to fend for themselves. Traveling from village to village often "so hungry it hurts to drink water," they are separated during a rebel attack. Now alone, Ishmael wanders for weeks until meeting boys he knew from school. Joining forces, the boys look for somewhere, anywhere, they can feel safe. They think they've found it in a town controlled by government soldiers. That "safety" comes at a high price, as the boys are armed with AK-47s and turned into young but lethal killing machines. By 15, Ishmael's life has changed so radically that "my squad was my family, my gun was my provider and protector, and my rule was to kill or be killed." When a group of UNICEF workers arrive at his camp, Ishmael is chosen as one of the boys to be taken to a rehabilitation center that works with boy soldiers. At 16, his life begins anew as he struggles with an addiction to drugs, terrible nightmares, and the enormous challenge of learning to live a life that no longer revolves around killing or being killed.

Is it any good?

Harrowing, painfully honest, and haunting, this unforgettable memoir of a young boy whose teen years became a killing field is ultimately a story of hope and redemption. In A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah uses his own story to speak for the thousands of child soldiers whose stories will never be told. While originally published for adults, it's popular with teen readers and sometimes assigned in school.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the role rehabilitation and redemption play in A Long Way Gone. Do you think Ishmael was an exception, or do you believe anyone who has committed violent and terrible acts can become a new person?

  • Did your ideas about what war is like change after reading Ishmael's story? Do you think movies and TV shows glamorize what it's like to be a soldier?

  • What part do you think drugs played in turning schoolboys into killers?

Book details

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