Fiction that Inspires

By Holly Johnson, University of Cincinnati

Last week I talked about the three biographies on the WOW Recommends list and how inspiring they are for young people. This week I want to talk about a few equally inspiring fiction pieces. Those three books are The Stars at Oktober Bend (2018) by Glenda Millard, Speak: The Graphic Novel (2018) by Laurie Halse Anderson, and Escape from Aleppo (2018) by N.H. Senzai. While I suggest these books are inspiring, that does not mean they are without tragedy. In fact, all three chronicle an overwhelming tragedy for each of the protagonists. And it is their battle to overcome despite the tragedy, their hope for their futures and their ultimate victories that are so inspiring. The readers are with these characters as they encounter or struggle through the aftermath of each of their individual horrors. Let’s take a look at each one in turn. They deserve this second look!

Let’s start with Speak: The Graphic Novel by Laurie Halse Anderson and illustrated by Emily Carroll. Can you believe it has been 20 years since this book first came out? Wow, does time fly or what! This book is still relevant, still disconcerting and still part of the world’s landscape. By publishing the story in the form of a graphic novel, it updates the format while keeping the story line intact. Particular readers will be drawn to each format, and the graphics can be helpful for readers who may struggle with comprehension. The added support allows for entrée into the story that may have alluded some readers in the past. I appreciate the use of graphics for its connection to the artwork that plays such a prominent role in the book and in Melinda’s journey toward finding her voice after her victimization. Emily Carroll’s graphics are a perfect complement to the horror of Melinda’s story. Carrol is known for her work in graphic novel horror stories, so her sensibilities as an artist really come through. This book is well worth a revisit in graphic form.

The second book for this week is Escape from Aleppo by N.H. Senzai. We have heard so much about Syria and the war there in the news over the last couple of years. Well, this book is not only edge of your seat exciting, but also helpful in understanding the situation and the horror experienced by those caught between the rebels and the government. Nadia seems a normal 14-year-old with a loving family, teenage dreams, and a sensibility that includes nail polish and fashion magazines. She is not so normal in respect to American readers, who do not live with bombs destroying their neighborhoods and homes.

When one of those bombs hits her building, she and her family must escape before it is too late. But Nadia is separated from her family when a second bomb hits, and she must rely on her own wits and a kindly stranger to find her way to the safe house her family determined as a meeting place before they became victims of the war. As Nadia makes her way across Aleppo, readers will hold their breath as she encounters dangers throughout the days it takes her to find her way to safety and her family.

This book is a wonderful complement to other books about Syria including the graphic novel, Escape from Syria (2017) by Samya Kallub (illustrated by Jackie Roche), Refugee (2017) by Alan Gratz, and A Land of Permanent Goodbyes (2018) by Atia Abawi. These are important reads as the world becomes increasingly smaller and more connected.

Finally, I wrap up this week with The Stars at Oktober Bend (2018) by Glenda Millard. This is another fantastic book, and filled with such beautiful language. Fifteen-year-old Alice stays hidden from the world after the tragedy that may keep her “forever 12.” A victim of violence in which she was almost killed by a blow to her head, Alice uses her “book of flying” to re-learn language through poetry that she wishes to share with the world. She does so by posting her poems on community bulletin boards, one of which is found by Manny, another outsider to Alice’s Australian community. Finding each other may be the best thing that happened for both Alice and Manny, as they tell their stories of pain, hope and courage while learning to trust and love who they are and who they could become.

I found this book both hopeful and haunting. A great read aloud, but also a wonderful book for those who are struggling with who they are and how just their singular presence does, indeed, make an impact on the world. Alice’s thinking and her way of expression reminds us of the richness of language as well as how often simple truths contribute to understanding the world. This book with its language belongs with contemporary poetry. Manny’s past and his struggle with his own transitioning belongs with books on restoration and healing. I think teens would find Oktober Bend a place where poetry does have the power to heal, not only the protagonists within the story, but perhaps even some of the hurt within readers’ own lives. I seriously loved this book. Millard writes such sensitive and thoughtful books, including Once a Shepherd (2014), a picturebook about war that would be appropriate across multiple grade levels.

These are three great books for middle and high school students. All of which were recommended in 2018. This tells me something about 2018, and about what seems to be resonating with publishers as well as readers. While the world can be such a hurtful, violent place, a universal truth about human beings is that in spite of it all, we often overcome.

You can view the complete list of the 2018 WOW Recommends book list here.

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