Two memoirs, a work of historical fiction, and a "space opera" that defies categorization.
Ms. Bartels Recommends
The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya & Elizabeth Weil
It is rare that I will pick up a memoir – very rare – so I'm not sure what it was about this book that pulled me in. But I'm so glad I read it. Wamariya's story is sad, brutal, and painful, but also uplifting and hopeful. The story opens with a shocking revelation about Wamariya's life on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" that sent me racing to the internet to look up the episode. And I was hooked from those very first pages. In addition, the book has one of the most succinct explanations of the Rwandan genocide that I have ever come across and in a few paragraphs she was able to explain what feels unexplainable.
"Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when her mother and father began to speak in whispers, when neighbors began to disappear, and when she heard the loud, ugly sounds her brother said were thunder.' In 1994, she and her fifteen-year-old sister, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years wandering through seven African countries, searching for safety – perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindness, witnessing inhuman cruelty. They did not know whether their parents were dead or alive.
When Clemantine was twelve, she and her sister were granted asylum in the United States, where she embarked on another journey – to excavate her past and, after years of being made to feel less than human, claim her individuality." ~from the publisher
Recommended for: Grades 8+
Ms. Ricker Recommends
Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson
Having read Laurie Halse Anderson's The Impossible Knife of Memory and Speak – and loved both books – I was intrigued to read the author's own memoir because she writes about how her own experiences inspired those books. Written in verse, Anderson writes about the aftermath of her own assault, but also smaller instances of sexism and male entitlement that were often quietly accepted prior to the #MeToo era. I found it most fascinating to read about reactions to the book Speak: on one hand, it was widely banned and her speaking engagements at schools were canceled; but she also received an incredible outpouring from survivors – girls and boys – who felt that Melinda's story was their story. The book feels perfectly timed; the author's rage is very satisfying while the overarching story is one of healing and triumph. Although this memoir deals with mature themes from an adult point of view, there's nothing overly graphic here and I think students would get a lot out of reading and sharing this story. I already had one 8th grader tell me that this was the best book she read this past summer.
"Bestselling author Laurie Halse Anderson is known for the unflinching way she writes about, and advocates for, survivors of sexual assault. Now, inspired by her fans and enraged by how little in our culture has changed since her groundbreaking novel Speak was first published twenty years ago, she has written a poetry memoir that is as vulnerable as it is rallying, as timely as it is timeless. In free verse, Anderson shares reflections, rants, and calls to action woven between deeply personal stories from her life that she's never written about before. . . . A denouncement of our society's failures and a love letter to all the people with the courage to say #MeToo and #TimesUp, whether aloud, online, or only in their own hearts, Shout speaks truth to power in a loud, clear voice – and once you hear it, it is impossible to ignore." ~from the publisher
Recommended for: Grades 8+
Ms. Kazan Recommends
The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See
I love historical fiction novels that not only feature compelling characters and plots, but that also take place in a locale or during an era of which have limited knowledge. The Island of Sea Women is just that type of book: educational, informative, and absorbing. See vividly portrays the plight of the haenyeo – Korean women sea divers – living on Jeju Island during the 20th century. Their role as the primary – and often sole – breadwinner in their families made for a unique matriarchal society. As with her previous novel, Snowflower and the Secret Fan, See depicts the bonds women share through their hardships and suffering and explores the importance of family and friendship. Her theme of forgiveness is universal and, as experienced through her protagonist Young-sook, deeply felt. See also spares no detail in describing the atrocities suffered by the Jeju people during the post-WWII American occupation. For readers wanting to explore further, this website features detailed information about the haenyeo and the history of Jeju Island.
"The story of two friends from different backgrounds that begins during a period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s followed by World War II, the Korean War, and up through the era of cell phones and wet suits for women divers. When Mi-ja and Young-sook are old enough, they begin working in the sea with their village's all-female diving collective, led by Young-sook's mother. As the girls take up their positions as baby divers, they know they are beginning a life of excitement and responsibility but also danger." ~from the publisher
Recommended for: Grades 9+
Ms. Matlin Recommends
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
Gideon the Ninth comes with the pithy hook "lesbian necromancers in space." I've never found necromancy (magic with corpses, skeletons, etc.) to be a particularly intriguing hook and after the first two chapters, I was almost ready to consign this to my small pile of books I'll never finish. However, I kept with it and by the halfway mark, I was stretching out my reading time to make the book last longer. This is definitely not a romance, but rather a political locked room mystery/competition to the death. I was impressed with how well Muir is able to create a world of magic set in both space and the future. Gideon's voice is such fun to read; her sarcasm is the best. Some stylistic choices take a lot of attention from the reader (figuring out which character is which had me flipping to the front every few pages for a while) and there is a lot of exposition loaded into the last chapters. The ending, though, is something I absolutely didn't expect and I'm really excited to see how the story continues in the next novel.
"Gideon has a sword, some dirty magazines, and no more time for undead nonsense. Brought up by unfriendly, ossifying nuns, ancient retainers, and countless skeletons, she is ready to abandon a life of servitude and an afterlife as a reanimated corpse. Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and bone witch extraordinaire, has been summoned to a deadly trial of wits and skill. If Harrowhark succeeds she will become an immortal, all-powerful servant of the Resurrection. Without Gideon's sword, Harrow will fail, and the Ninth House will die. Of course, some things are better left dead." ~from the publisher
Recommended for: Grades 9+