Ten Books that Imagine the Unimaginable: Genocide by Sarah J. Donovan, PhD

Education reform wants competition and global participation, but reform does not seem interested in intervening in the dark side of such progress. As a modern nation, we celebrate development, yet we tend to overlook the lives lost and voices pushed to the margins of society in the process. Literature is one way we can bear witness to distant suffering and contemplate future action.


Teachers have been reading books about the Holocaust with students for years in part because many states made Holocaust education mandatory in the hopes of raising a generation who might live the promise of “never again.” However, again and again we hear stories of genocide and see images of distant suffering.


Teen readers want to uncover the stories behind the images, stories missing from textbooks and the classroom current events magazines. They want the opportunity to ask why “again and again” and to imagine what needs to happen to keep the promise of “never again” in their lifetime.


This genocide book list includes titles I’ve read with my junior high students. These books nurture in readers the capacity to bear witness to unimaginable stories, to understand how words make an imprint in our minds, and to carry these stories to others. We consider how books and other media represent victims and distant suffering. Because these books are crafted from memories, testimonies, and history, we ponder the process and problem of remembering.


Nerdy Book Club members have huge hearts, so full of compassion for characters and their readers. Indeed, these books are heart-wrenching, so tread carefully.


absolutely true diary of a part time indian

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Ellen Forney


Atrocities against Native peoples span hundreds of years with implications rarely discussed in schools. Sherman Alexie unveils the pervasive poverty and despair on reservations in a novel based on his own experiences growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. Teen readers love the narrator, Arnold, who describes and sketches his life with humor and heart as he makes the 22-mile journey off the rez every day to go to school: “I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods,” he says, “and my cartoons are my tiny little lifeboats.”


Daughter of War

Daughter of  War by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch


Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch writes the story of two orphans, Marta and Kevork, separated during the Armenian deportation in Turkey in 1915. Marta survives by living in a Turkish home as a Muslim woman, and Kevork is adopted into an Arab clan in Syria. Follow Kevork through the deserts and camps as he searches for Marta and later works as a courier for an American to secretly transport money to refugee camps.


Forgotten Fire

Forgotten Fire by Adam Bagdasarian


Based on the recorded account of his great uncle, Adam Bagdasarian tells a story of the Armenian genocide that killed a half million people between 1915 and 1923. Twelve-year-old Vahan witnesses the death of his family and finds the courage and ingenuity to survive a journey to Constantinople with the aid of remarkable, brave people.


Between Shades of Gray

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys


Ruta Sepetys brings readers into Siberia in 1941 to tell the story of fifteen-year-old Lina and her family who are deported from Lithuania by the Soviet secret police to a work camp in Siberia. Lina documents her experiences in art and writing for others to bear witness to Stalin’s regime.


First They Killed My Father

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung


At age five, Loung and her family were forced to flee their privileged life in Phnom Penh by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Dispersed to different camps, the family hid their identity in order to survive; young Loung was trained as a child soldier. Angelina Jolie Pitt will produce a film version in late 2016.


Never Fall Down

Never Fall Down: A Novel by Patricia McCormick


As a boy, Arn Chorn-Pond survived the Cambodian genocide of 1975-1979 in the labor camps, in part, because of the music he learned to play for the Khmer Rouge. Patricia McCormick renders his story using a dialect, which both elaborates Arn’s culture and works to distance readers from the atrocities he witnessed.


Tree Girl

Tree Girl  by Ben Mikaelsen


Gabriela Flores once climbed trees to be closer to the clouds and to her dreams, but in this novel about the Guatemalan genocide, Gabi climbs trees to survive the bullets of government soldiers. When her family is killed, she joins thousands of Mayan refugees trekking to the Mexican border in search of safety and her sister feeling ashamed that she survived while others perished.


The Cellist of Sarajevo

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway


Steven Galloway’s novel tells the story of four people struggling to live in Sarajevo, a city under siege, cut off from food, water, and electricity following Bosnia and Herzegovina’s independence from Yugoslavia.


Broken Memory

Broken Memory: A Story of Rwanda by Elisabeth Combres


Combres writes about Rwanda’s healing since the 1994 genocide.  At five-years-old, Emma heard her mother’s murder as she hid behind a couch. Taken in by Mukecuru, a kind Hutu woman, Emma grows up haunted by nightmares, unable to remember her mother’s face. When the gacaca courts come to her town nearly a decade later, Emma meets Ndoli, another child survivor whose trauma is more visible. With the help of an elderly man, the teens begin to heal.


a long walk to water

A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story by Linda Sue Park


Two stories account for the ongoing unrest in Sudan. Salva is an eleven-year-old boy separated from his family during a school shooting in 1985. He journeys to Ethiopia and then to safety in Kenya. Nya is also eleven, but her story is in 2008 and tells of a life spent walking for water until Salva returns to Sudan to build a well.                                                                                                                 


Nerdy Book Club members, have you read these titles with your students? What other titles can you recommend?


Sarah J. Donovan is a junior high ELA teacher at Winston Campus Junior High in Palatine, Illinois.  She earned a PhD in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago and is an adjunct professor at DePaul University where she teaches graduate courses in adolescent development. At NCTE in Minnesota, she’ll chair a session with colleagues and author Patricia McCormick on reading as bearing witness and how reading can turn bystanders into activists. You can find Sarah on Twitter @MrsSJDonovan, Facebook, and her blog Ethical ELA.