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.
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 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 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 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: 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: 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 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 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: 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: 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.
Thanks for sharing this excellent resource for school librarians. I’ll pass this along to librarians in my school district.
Your blog broke my heart. There was – and is – so much pain in the world. We mustn’t forget.
Thank you for introducing me to some new books. I’m grateful that you are introducing your students to the stories beyond the textbook. I hope that in 2016 you may find my MG historical novel, THE LAST CHERRY BLOSSOM, worthy of being added to your list.
I saw it is available for preorder on Amazon. Looking forward to it.
Thank you Sarah!
A sad excellent list. We are planning a unit on the Human Rights of the Child and need a few more books for our book clubs. I think I just found them. Thank you.
Like Water on Stone by Dana Walrath should be added to this list. Armenian Genocide and written in powerful verse.
Thanks for the recommendation!
Great post, Sarah! PA actually has a law about this that went into effect this school year. http://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/legis/li/uconsCheck.cfm?yr=2014&sessInd=0&act=70
Illiniois’ law went into effect ten years ago, but it has been ignored by teachers for the most part as it was not funded nor encouraged given the emphasis on testing.
I’ve just had to hit Amazon to order a whole bunch of new books! While I think you for the list, I have to figure out how to hide my purchases from my husband!
I HIGHLY recommend the graphic novel WAR BROTHERS about the child soldiers in Northern Uganda. I can’t keep it on my shelf.
David Etkin http://Www.mretome.wordpress.com
Thank you. I would add a couple pertaining to the genocide of black people in this country, the effects of which we are still dealing with. Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes, Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis, Nightjohn by Gary Paulsen, and Letters from a Slave Girl: The Story of Harriet Jacobs–Book by Mary E. Lyons
Thanks for these recommendations. We read Narrative in the Life of Frederick Douglass last year — very powerful and eye opening.
Reblogged this on readbetweenthebindings and commented:
This is a great post done by NerdyBookClub. I’ve only read one on this list, but these are the types of books that change your heart and mind! I’m adding many of these to my to-read list!
Thanks so much for sharing this. Have passed along the ink to other school librarians in my school district.
Thank you for this great list. I’m honored to be included.
Woow great titles there….i love novels….i don’t even eat when I have a bunch to read
I’ve read a long walk to water. It was a short book but held a powerful message.
Zlata’s Diary by Zlata Filopovic is a young teenager’s diary of the siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s. The details haunt me–the big meat barbecue to eat up all the food in the freezer when electricity was first cut, for example.
Thanks for all the other entries on this list, too.
Of course, I do share Zlata’s Diary with students, too.I actually went to Sarajevo a few years ago to see the tunnel and heard many speakers tell stories of survival and the aftermath of the genocide of Srebrenica. Now, the children from women who were raped during the war are facing the past; social workers and therapists in Sarejevo are doing some amazing and complex work to help people heal. Lists are always incomplete.
For me, it’s rare to come across non-Armenians who: 1. know who Armenians are (well… in a pre-Kardashian world), 2. know where Armenia is, 3. have heard of the Armenian Genocide, 4. read a book on the topic of the Armenian Genocide. I read “Forgotten Fire” back when I was 13 and loved it. Maybe because most every Armenian family has a similar story–death, displacement, loss, fear, recovery. I think it’s wonderful that you read all these books to your students. At this age, It gives them an opportunity to think and react to the situation and emotions. And thank you for choosing “Forgotten Fire”!
I’m looking forward to reading the other titles on this list.
Great list, with one correction: During the Armenian genocide, an estimated 1.5 million people perished, not a half million. Thanks for this! I appreciate you including Forgotten Fire. 🙂