The Boys Start the War: Summary & Characters

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

In this lesson, we'll learn about Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's novel 'The Boys Start the War.' After a plot synopsis, we'll get to know the Hatford boys and the Malloy girls. Then, we'll explore their to the real-world Hatfields and McCoys.

Boys vs Girls

Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's The Boys Start the War (1993) initiates a whole series devoted to the boy-versus-girl feud between the Hatfords and the Malloys, a not-so-subtle reference to the historical Hatfields and McCoys. With its themes of family and friendship wrapped into a humorous feud, The Boys Start the War is a favorite among 8-12 year-old readers. Publisher Random House suggests this book for grades 3-5.

The story takes place in Buckman, West Virginia, the fictional counterpart to Buckhannon. The Hatford family, with their four boys, live on 'the Island.' 'The large piece of land in the middle of Buckman was not really an island, because water surrounded only three asides of it, but people called it 'the Island' anyway. Their best friends, the Benson boys, had lived in the house on the other side of a footbridge traversing the river. When the Bensons move to Georgia, the Hatford boys wait with baited breath to meet the new family, who, they have been assured, also consists of boys.

But a veritable 'war' ensues when their assumptions turn out to be false; the incoming Malloys are actually a family of girls! Over the course of the next 133 pages, Naylor switches between the perspectives of the Hatford boys and the Malloy girls in order to show how each ups the ante. It's a war of wits.


The main characters of the story are, of course, the Hatford boys and the Malloy girls. Let's take a close look at how they each are described in the book.

Hatford Boys

There are four Hatford boys: Jake, Josh, Wally, and Peter. The twins, Jake and Josh, are in the 6th grade. Wally's in the 4th, and Peter, the youngest, is in 2nd grade.

We initially meet the four Hatford boys in a commotion over the anticipated arrival of their new neighbors. 'Wally hoped there would be friends for each of them - an 11-year-old for the twins, a 9-year-old for him, and a 7-year-old friend for Peter.'

Peter and Wally 'both had brown hair, blue eyes, and thick, sturdy hands like their father's, Jake and Josh, however, were string-bean skinny, with skin that tanned by the first week of June.'

Malloy Girls

There are three Malloy girls: Eddie, Beth, and Caroline. Eddie (whose proper name is Edith Ann) is the oldest, in 6th grade. Beth is in the 5th grade, and Caroline is in the 4th grade.

Naylor describes the Malloys in detail upon their arrival in Buckman:

  • 'Eddie, eleven, was tallest by far, and always wore her cap, even to the dinner table'
  • 'Beth, ten, was fair-haired and pale-skinned, and tended to list to one side in a strong wind.'
  • 'It was eight-year-old Caroline, with dark hair and eyes like her father's, who had big plans for that river. Caroline, her mother always said, was precocious.'

An Age-Old Rivalry

Now that we've met the kids, let's take a look at the book. The prepubescent rivalry between boys and girls is as old as the hills. Young adult author Phillis Reynolds Naylor illustrates that fact in The Boys Start the War. The story is told from the perspective of the two 4th graders of the respective tribes: Wally and Caroline (both 9-year-olds).

Wally and his brothers, Jake and Josh (twins, both 11), and Peter (7), fully expected the new family to consist of boys, just like their best friends the Bensons. The Hatfords and Bensons had struck a tightly-knit bond. Every Halloween they had won top prizes for their costumes, and every summer they had competed in a Baseball team.

But watching the Malloys move in to the old Benson house, the boys are dismayed as they witness three girls embarking from the van. What are they to do? The Hatfords swear a pact. They will get the Malloys to move back to Ohio, where they came from.

The Hatford's initial idea is to literally burn the bridge across the river that separates their properties. But when that idea doesn't pan out, they choose to simply ignore the Malloy girls. If that doesn't work, they'll intimidate the Malloys by strewing dead fish and detritus on their side of the river. Gross! It'll make them think the river is polluted, and they'll immediately want to run home!

Unbeknownst to Hatford boys, the Malloy girls - Eddie, Beth, and Caroline - are already spying on them from across the river, with the aid of their father's binoculars.

'Those creepy jerks!' cried Caroline.
'Those jerky creeps!' said Eddie. 'This isn't a joke anymore. This is war!'

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