"Between Shades of Gray" by Ruta Sepetys is a young adult historical fiction about a Lithuanian family who is taken from their home in 1941 by the Soviets. What follows is a tragic, beautiful tale of endurance as the characters are taken to Siberia to work in camps during Stalin's Reign of Terror.
Told through the lens of a 15-year-old girl devoted to drawing her experiences, this book teaches the history of a people most of the world has forgotten in a far more accessible way than a history textbook. While we hear often of the horrific Holocaust of WWII, we rarely hear of another genocide happening in the Arctic Circle at the exact same time. This is because when Stalin's prisoners were eventually freed, they went home to a still Communist Soviet Union. Many of them died before the Soviet Union collapsed and their stories were silenced forever.
While this book illustrates some harsh realities, I think it's such an important book to read. It moves well, has a little love story, and is great for adults as well as teenagers. Head's up: There is mention of prostitution, but I saw it as very subtle and not explicit. I highly recommend it!
(Side note: I recently saw this book retitled as "Ashes in the Snow"—I guess it's been made into a movie and maybe "Between Shades of Gray" was too close to "Fifty Shades of Gray"?? All I can say is this book is NOT the latter. It is a totally different genre, promise. ;) )
If/when you read it, let me know what you think. I was moved.
Have you ever read Barbara Kingsolver? She is one of my favorite writers. Combine her stunning, compelling writing style with life in 1959 in the Belgian Congo, and you have "The Poisonwood Bible."
This novel gripped me tightly. It taught me more about colonial and postcolonial Africa than any other book I've read so far. An ambitious historical fiction, Kingsolver weaves the saga of an intense, evangelical Baptist preacher from the United States who takes his wife and four daughters to the Congo right on the eve of its independence movement from Belgium. It covers at least three decades, painting a fascinating image of life in the Congo during this era. You live through the Congo revolution through the witty, painful, and moving perspectives of five women. I ran the gamut of emotions with this book: first I was appalled, then sad, then laughing, then aghast, then angry, then moved, then shocked, then hurt, and finally, furiously searching Google to see if the story had historical significance. Which it did.
Imperialism in Africa was covered in my high school and university history classes, but I'm embarrassed to say that none of it sank deeply until I read this book. And this book took a huge dive into my soul. While I have never been to the Congo, a year or two later after reading this book, I traveled to South Africa, Botswana, and Zambia. I am so glad I read it before that trip. It was able to see the continent in a whole new light.
"The Poisonwood Bible" left me with more questions than answers, which, to me, is the sign of a good book. I found myself mulling over all kinds of concepts: white supremacy, African culture, religious orthodoxy, geography differences, stubbornness, open-mindedness, fear, America's political involvement abroad, daily life in rural villages, family relationships... the list goes on and on. You'll definitely want to discuss this one, so grab a curious friend and read it together. If you're anything like me, you'll learn more than you ever expected and be asking a lot of questions by the end.
Before studying abroad in the Middle East and then teaching its history, I was daunted by this area of the world. I think many, if not most, Americans are. Once I lived there for a time, my love for and interest in the Middle East has grown enormously, and the countries of that region are now my favorite to study. Just ask my teacher friends on the World team: when our Middle East unit came up, I was brimming with ideas and was always attempting to extend our time studying it! I'm sure it got a bit annoying.
Enter: "I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban" (by Malala Yousafzai). It is the story of a brave teenage girl who is forced to leave her school when the Taliban takes control of her home. Her father, an amazing man, helps her find her voice to stand up, and in the end she is shot in the head for it. The story details her childhood, her decision to speak out, the shooting, and the aftermath. When I taught World Civ, I kept a magazine cut-out of Malala next to my desk, with this quote: “When someone takes away your pens you realize quite how important education is.”
There were days as a teacher when I felt in the trenches and didn't know what I was doing it all for—the endless grading, parent interfacing, deadlines, and curriculum development. But when I felt that treadmill kick in, I'd look over at the picture and remember that education is a gift. And there are many, many people in the world who would do almost anything (including being shot) to learn in a school environment. Malala's face next to my desk acted as a reframing mechanism for me. She kept things in perspective.
This book puts education in a bright light. If you yourself are in school and currently dreading class, or are a parent with kids who are losing interest and whining constantly about having to go to school, I recommend this book. Not so that it guilts you into begrudgingly liking school (ha!), but rather to add some depth of perspective on the hard days.
Likewise, if you are looking for a simple introduction to Pakistan, the issues surrounding the Taliban, and are interested in women's rights, this book is a good start. She gives cultural insights into women's rights in Pakistan, home life, the religion of Islam, and the general culture of her valley. I felt like I walked away from the book getting an insider's peek into an area that is not very well known. Not only was I empowered by her story, but I also felt more culturally aware and open-minded.
This book was published in 2013, so obviously the area has changed in the past few years. However, it gives a good starting point for further study and will help you feel a little more knowledgable without being textbookish. There is also a Young Readers edition of the book, as well as many spin-offs for little kids!
I wouldn't say "I Am Malala" has stunning prose or exceptional writing, but it is moving. It moved me to be a little more bold and compassionate. Her story is definitely worth your time.