It’s been awhile since I wrote about what I’ve been reading, which is actually funny because I have been reading more than I ever have before. In fact, I am on book 22 for the school year! Crazy!
Anyway, in the last month or so, I read six Young Adult Lit books that fall under the category of “world literature” and “historical fiction” because my 8th grade classes would be choosing between them for their final class book of the school year. Each of my five classes has a “book club” centered around each of these books. So far, it’s a wonderful experience, and I think the fact that the book are so darn good is has a big part of that.
I really love historical fiction, but I admit I hadn’t read much YA historical fiction until now. And of course reading six titles, probably qualifies as binging on it, but I am Ok with that. I highly recommend all of these titles to anyone 13 and over, so let’s get into the books…
My Name is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson
Based on stories friends and family have told her, Edwardon bases her book in Alaska in the 1960’s when public schools were unavailable to the majority of children who didn’t live in a main city. Before 1976, students who wanted to attend high school had to travel hundreds of miles to boarding schools. In My Name is Not Easy, Luke (whose real name is not really Luke, but something too difficult for white speakers to pronounce) and his brothers–along with other children including Chickie, Amiq, Junior, and Sonny–are sent to Sacred Heart School where they realize that the students–Eskimo like them, Native American (Indian), and white–segregate themselves in the lunch room almost as if some sort of war is going on. The staff at Sacred Heart forbid use of native language and push to assimilate the children to a white, Catholic culture, but the students main goal is just to survive school and get back to their families.
I not only loved all of the characters in this book, but I knew many of my students would identify with having a name and culture that society may not understand. Many of my students may feel that they have to push their own culture behind them at school.
The Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle
Engle tells the story of Cuba’s struggle for independence through poetry through the eyes of characters in the middle of the action, mainly Rosa–known to some as a witch for her knowledge of holistic healing with herbs. The story begins with her childhood learning the different powers of flowers and plants, and it follows her as she becomes a nurse to those injured–from both sides–during Cuba’s fight against the Spanish empire. The setting is mainly near the concentration camps where former Cuban slaves were sent. While the poems are mostly from Rosa’s point of view, some are also from the voice of Lieutenant Death, a slave hunter who has a particular vengeance for capturing Rosa. The character of Rosa is based on Rosa Castellanos, an historical heroine known as “la bayamesa”.
This book was both beautiful and devestating. I had forgotten home much I love to read narrative poetry, and how quickly the actual reading goes. The imagery and just sensations this book oozes are wonderful and terrifying. I went back and re-read some of my favorites. This book is in English, but a Spanish version is also included. Many of my students are hungry to read in their native tongue and lots have family in Cuba. I knew this would be appealing to those kids.
A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
This is book is a dual narrative about Salva–one of the Sudanese Lost Boys–and Nya. Salva’s true story begins when he is eleven years old in 1985. Salva is separated from his family when fighting comes to his village in Southern Sudan. He has to walk for days in hope to find his family. He struggles to find food and people. He ends up walking for seven years before ending up in a refugee camp. Nya is a fictional character whose story begins in 2008 when she is also eleven years old. She has to walk to a pond that is two hours away twice a day to provide fresh water for her family. Her story emphasizes the lack of clean water in Sudan and the importance of family. In the end, Salva and Nya’s stories cross making a very important push for Salva’s cause of bringing clean water to South Sudan.
This was the first book of the six I read and I remember closing it and thinking, “these books are going to leave me emotionally drained.” I was right. Reading Salva and Nya’s stories was like going on these walks with them. And although I knew Salva survived to create the Water For South Sudan project, I kept thinking, “this is it. He can’t survive this.” I knew this book would appeal to the widest range of students, and since its the shortest, easiest read many of my reluctant readers chose it and are loving it.
Climbing The Stairs by Padma Venkatraman
Vidya is fifteen and dreams of going to college. But she lives in British-occupied India during World War II. Her family is loving and supportive and fairly liberal, encouraging her to be what she wants to be. However tragedy strikes and they are forced to live with ultra-conservative relatives who believe women should remain uneducated, serve men, and wait around to be married to a good family. Vidya is miserable, but she secretly breaks the rules and ventures upstairs to her grandfather’s library to read books she is not supposed to even touch. Here she meets Raman who treats her as an equal. When her brother leaves unexpectedly, Vidya is suddenly forced to think about the political situation in India and what she can do to hold on and make her dreams reality.
This is totally a “girl power” book. Venkatraman bases her characters on family members who have told her stories of growing up in India during this time period, and I was excited to see some of my strongest girls chose this book, and have already commented that they are totally loving it!
Far From Home by Na’ima B Robert
This was the last book I read of the six and I admit to needing to take a break from reading after this one. For one, I had binge-read six historical fictions in less than four weeks. Secondly this one made me think and I just needed the time to reflect before diving into something new.
Part One of Far From Home is Tariro’s story. She is fourteen years old, lives in Zimbabwe on her ancestral grounds near the baobab tree that she was born under. Her dad is the chief, she is in love with the brave and handsome Nhamo–things couldn’t be better. Then white settlers arrive and violently and tragically drive her and her family out of their home into new areas zoned specifically for the blacks.
Part Two is Katie’s story and takes place twenty-five years later. Katie is also fourteen and lives on a farm in Zimbabwe near the baobab tree. She loves her family, her exclusive boarding school, and her home. Then disaster strikes when the second War for Liberation occurs and natives begin to reclaim their land. She is forced to leave the only hone she has ever known and go back to London with her family.
It was hard for me to feel sorry for Katie at first. Her relatives had been the ones to drive the natives off their land! But as I read, I understood the complexity of it. Katie, herself, had not been involved in the relocation. This home was where she was born and raised. It’s all she knew. Plus as the entire story unfolds she learns about white privilege and humanity.
While it is worlds away from us, there are definite connections with today’s society here in the United States. It’s a more difficult, longer read, so only a few of my higher reading level students are tackling this one, but so far they are enjoying it and I am enjoying the conversations that are coming out of it.
Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick
This one affected me the most out of all the books. This is the true story of Arn, a survivor from the Cambodia Civil War during the 1970’s. He was eleven years old when the Khmer Rouge invaded his village, killing the upper-class and educated and separating the rest of the people into work camps. Arn was sent to a work camp that was also where they took prisoners and slaughtered them. He was forced to work with almost no food or sleep and witness the horrific murder of many people–some of whom he knew. If the kids reacted, they were also killed. Arn eventually volunteers to become a musician for the propaganda-like revolutionary songs the Khmer Rouge has them play. Later, when the Vietnamese invade to help the people of Cambodia, Arn is forced to join the Khmer Rouge as a child soldier.
I had to keep reminding myself that this story is true, and that Arn does survive and make it to the United States because I kept expecting him to die. Reading this from the lens of a mother and teacher was hard. I found myself putting the book down several times because the imagery was so horrifying. I knew my students would be engrossed in a book about a kid close to their own age having to survive experiences that were too terrible to even imagine. I was right.
All six of these books are about real historical events, many of which we don’t learn about in school. And if we do, it is only briefly covered in a textbook which dates and a few facts. These books humanize the wars and struggles so many children had to endure.
Have you read any of these? Do you have any suggestions to add to this list? (because I am always open to adding more to my To Read pile!)