Author: Farida Khalaf with Andrea C. Hoffman (trans. from German by Jamie Bulloch) Title: The Girl Who Beat ISIS (The Girl Who Escaped ISIS in the US) Format/Source: Paperback/Library Published: July 2016 Publisher: Square Peg Length: 204 pages Genre: Memoir Why I Read: Spotted in ‘new and noted’ at the library Rating: ★★★★ GoodReads | Indigo | Book Depository
I read The Girl Who Beat ISIS in one sitting. Farida Khalaf (not her real name, nor is she the girl depicted on the cover) has an unfathomable story to share. For me, her story is unfathomable because I cannot imagine what it must have been like to be enslaved as she was, torn from family, knowing her fathers and brothers had been murdered and the rest of her family likely lost to her. Khalaf, 18 at the time of her enslavement, manages to eventually escape her captors, rescuing with her five younger girls. She beats ISIS by defying their grasp, but not before suffering what so many other Yazidi women have suffered. While reading Khalaf’s story, I desperately hoped that girl who fought who so stubbornly and held to her values would escape the sexual assault that she is rightly terrified of. Though her tale ends on a positive note, she endures atrocious torment at the hands of her captors. Khalaf has a difficult story to share. A note from Khalaf’s co-author at the end of the book details how they came to document her story, and how painful it was for Khalaf. I applaud Khalaf for finding the strength to share her story.
I became familiar with the plight of the Yazidis primarily through Khalaf’s story. I had heard the word and I knew they were a minority group, but I didn’t know much about the horrors they experienced. A very brief introduction for those like me: The Yazidis are an ethnically Kurdish religious group living primarily in Iraq, where they are a minority. ISIS has been committing genocide against the Yazidis since 2014. (See below for links to more information.) Shortly after finishing the book, I learnt about the Canadian government’s commitment to resettle 1,200 Yazidi refugees this year. Recently, I have read reporting from the CBC that describes the journeys and hopes of some of those refugees, including a nine-member family that arrived in my city. Khalaf’s book illuminates the plight of her people. I can read her story and think about the Yazidis who have come so far to escape the horror Khalaf experienced, and hopefully find a better life as my neighbour. It’s difficult and painful to realize that the genocidal atrocities which ISIS inflicts on the Yazidis are occurring right now. In sharing her story, Khalaf gives us a valuable window into her world.
The Bottom Line:
The Girl Who Beat ISIS offers a gut-wrenching look into the experiences of a young Yazidi woman enslaved by ISIS. Khalaf’s first person narration gives the reader a personal, human connection to the Yazidi genocide.
UN human rights panel concludes ISIL is committing genoicde agains the Yazidis (2016 new release from the UN)
ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape (2015 article by The New York Times)
Canada to bring in 1,200 primarily Yazidi refugees by year end (2017 article by The Star)
From October to December of last year, I read just over 50 middle-grade fiction books in my role as a round one judge for the Cybils. To share some of the Cybils nominees I’ve read, I’ve decided to create a few lists grouping books by similar characteristics. All of the books meet the Cybils nominating criteria, which means they were published in English in Canada or the US between 16 October 2015 to 15 October 2016. Today’s list features four books which I personally enjoyed (that weren’t shortlisted or featured on any of my other lists).
Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand
Finley’s only retreat is the Everwood, a forest kingdom that exists in the pages of her notebook. Until she discovers the endless woods behind her grandparents’ house and realizes the Everwood is real–and holds more mysteries than she’d ever imagined, including a family of pirates that she isn’t allowed to talk to, trees covered in ash, and a strange old wizard living in a house made of bones. With the help of her cousins, Finley sets out on a mission to save the dying Everwood and uncover its secrets. But as the mysteries pile up and the frightening sadness inside her grows, Finley realizes that if she wants to save the Everwood, she’ll first have to save herself. Reality and fantasy collide in this powerful, heartfelt novel about family, depression, and the power of imagination.
[Okay, this book was shortlisted, but I just have to talk about it here.] As a child, I would have loved Some Kind of Happiness. I can’t argue that it has broad kid appeal, though I hope children who struggle with anxiety and/or depression may take comfort in this story. Sometimes Finley has blue days, where she feels desperately sad and overwhelmed, and she can’t figure out why. Early on, she writes, “(If anyone around here should feel sad, and heavy, and unable to get up and brush her teeth before bed, it should be Gretchen, or stick.) (Not me.)” (63). She comes to learn that she likely has an anxiety disorder and depression, and that there are ways for her to manage both. I found the story beautifully written (particularly the excerpts of Finley’s stories). This book sort-of straddles the boundary between fiction and speculative fiction. While Finley’s fantastical stories aren’t real within the context of the story, they feel real enough to me. It’s no secret that I prefer speculative over contemporary fiction. Finley’s writing injects that touch of fantasy I crave. Finally, I like story lines where kids are discovering the past wrongs of adults.
Own voices? – Yes. Legrand suffered from anxiety when she was a child (she wrote a guest post at SLJ about her experiences and the importance of mental illness representation in works for children).
Allie Velasco wants to be a trailblazer. A trendsetter. A winner. No better feeling exists in the world than stepping to the top of a winner’s podium and hoisting a trophy high in the air. At least that’s what Allie thinks; she’s never actually won anything before. Everyone in her family is special in some way; her younger sister is a rising TV star, her brother is a soccer prodigy, and her great-grandfather is a Congressional Medal of Honor winner. With a family like this, Allie knows she has to make her mark or risk being left behind. She’s determined to add a shiny medal, blue ribbon, or beautiful trophy to her family’s award shelf. When a prestigious school contest is announced, Allie has the perfect opportunity to take first, at last. There’s just one small snag: Her biggest competition is also her ex-best friend, Sara. Can Allie take top prize and win back a friend, or is she destined to lose it all?
Please disregard that blah cover. That’s what I should have done. Because I judged a book by its cover, Allie, First at Last turned out to be my biggest surprise read of the Cybils nominees. I appreciated that Allie’s flaw is her desire to be competitive. I find that often, if a character is hyper-competitive, it’s because they’re good at something and want to always be the best. Allie is still struggling to find her ‘thing’. The exploration of friendship via her relationships with Victor (new kid in school who Allie makes some negative assumptions about) and Sara (Allie’s former friend who isn’t totally sure why they’re not friends anymore) strengthen the story. Finally, I liked the inclusion of some WWII history via Allie’s great-grandfather.
Own voices? Yes – Cervantes is Mexican-American, like Allie.
Who eats Cheetos with chopsticks?! Avery and Becca, my “Chinese Sisters,” that’s who. We’re not really sisters—we were just adopted from the same orphanage. And we’re nothing alike. They sing Chinese love songs on the bus to summer camp, and I pretend like I don’t know them. To make everything worse, we have to journal about our time at camp so the adoption agency can do some kind of “where are they now” newsletter. I’ll tell you where I am: At Camp Little Big Woods in a cabin with five other girls who aren’t getting along, competing for a campout and losing (badly), wondering how I got here…and where I belong.
Just Like Me = camp narrative + adoption narrative. I thought the camp atmosphere was portrayed well, capturing the spirit of competitiveness that can overtake kids. I liked that the girls couldn’t always get along (although their bickering may grow old quickly for some readers). They had to learn to work together and empathize a little as they learnt about each other’s backgrounds. This applies not only to Julia, Avery, and Becca, but to the other three girls in their cabin as well.
Own voices? – Not exactly… Cavanaugh is definitely not an American girl adopted from China. The author photo in the book showing Cavanaugh (a White woman) with her daughter might lead one to assume that Cavanaugh adopted her daughter from China. However, the description does not clarify this, nor have I found explicit evidence online. In a time when we are recognizing more and more the value of own voices narratives, I am curious about the experiences (or lack thereof) which an author draws from, especially when writing contemporary fiction. I find it a tad frustrating not to be able to do that.
When her fifth-grade teacher hints that a series of lessons about home and community will culminate with one big answer about two tall towers once visible outside their classroom window, Deja can’t help but feel confused. She sets off on a journey of discovery, with new friends Ben and Sabeen by her side. But just as she gets closer to answering big questions about who she is, what America means, and how communities can grow (and heal), she uncovers new questions, too. Like, why does Pop get so angry when she brings up anything about the towers?
I was in grade four when 9/11 happened. It’s not something I think about very often, despite its astonishing repercussions on current events. I’d briefly thought about how nearly all my students (up to grade nine) were born after 9/11. I had never thought about how one would teach such students about 9/11. To these students, 9/11 may be just as historical as Pearl Harbour. I thought Rhodes sensitively handled the depiction of the event and how it impacted(s) people, including the PTSD of Deja’s father. I loved the diversity of the characters and how they connected. Basically, I appreciated how the story unfolded and explained the events of 9/11, while exploring the concept of community. Deja has a strong voice, and is a key character in the story (ie., she’s not just a mouth piece to teach about 9/11). Like Some Kind of Happiness, I’m not sure this one has broad kid appeal. I can imagine some kids reading Some Kind for pleasure, but this one has a strong classroom vibe to it. (The book was inspired by teachers who witnessed 9/11 and didn’t have a way to talk about it with students.)
Own voices? Yes – Rhodes is an African-American educator.
February posed a challenge when it came to staying on top of reading and blogging. I was travelling and offline for seven days of that short month. Plus, I found myself a full time job! 🙂 I am now working as an educational assistant in my local school division. Even with all the distractions, my posting goal didn’t suffer too much (only one post short). My reading goal took more of a hit. I’m currently 3 books behind. I plan on making up for February’s lost time with some middle grade and some (hopefully) unputdownable reads!
When the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin
Neverhome by Laird Hunt
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Middle Grade feat. Animals (from the Cybils middle-grade fiction nominees):
A Silent Voice Vol. 1by Yoshitoki Ooima – It’s been a long time since I read manga. I checked out this series on Neko Neha‘s recommendation. The first volume depicts what unfolds when Shoko, a girl who is deaf, enters a six grade classroom and becomes the bullying target of Shoya, the narrator. I taught sixth grade occasionally when I was in Japan. The students were generally on their best behaviour for me (I think because my time in their classroom was rare) so I didn’t see any bullying. Of course, I know bullying like what’s depicted in this volume occurs, as I heard tragic stories about 12 year olds committing suicide and schools refusing to discuss it, let alone acknowledge that bullying was probably a significant factor. Bullying is one issue. The treatment of students with disabilities is a whole nother one. Suffice it to say they are often more stigmatized than in western society. So, A Silent Voice begins as a sad story, but one that is important to share, especially in Japanese society. Vol. 1 reads a bit like a prologue. The rest of the series fast-forwards six years to Shoya trying to make amends with Shoko. I’m curious to see how that will pan out, so I will keep reading this series!
14 Mar – Publication of Star-Crossedby Barbara Dee (MG featuring a protagonist who learns about her bisexuality after developing a crush on girl at school during a production of Romeo and Juliet) and Amina’s Voiceby Hena Khan (MG contemporary about a Pakistani-American girl navigating her identity)
14 Mar – Local launch of Will I See? by David Alexander Robertson, GMB Chomichuk, and Iskwe (graphic novel about missing and murdered Indigenous women).
25 Mar – “All Who Wander”, an evening of dramatic readings and a capella renditions of music from The Lord of the Rings.
28 Mar – Publication of Radio Silence by Alice Osman (YA contemporary LGBTQA+ diverse characters and a male-female friendship(!)) and Triangle by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen (picture book by an excellent duo)
February whirled by for me! How was your month? Did you read any great books?
Author: Daniel José Older Title: Shadowshaper (Book 1) Format/Source: Hardcover/Library Published: June 2015 Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Length: 297 pages Genre: YA urban fantasy Why I Read: Heard DJO reading Rating: ★★★★ GoodReads | Indigo | Indiebound | Book Depository
I don’t read urban fantasy. That was my main reason for not checking out Shadowshaper. I could see why people would like it, but despite the awesome cover and the positive reviews, the premise didn’t catch my interested. Then I attended NerdCon. Daniel José Older read from Shadowshaper. His vivid reading convinced me to finally check out his book.
Sierra Santiago, the Afro-Latinx (Puerto Rican) teen discovering her shadowshaping abilities, shines as the protagonist. She’s my favourite part of the book. Here are some reasons why: On the first page, she’s painting a mural of a dragon on the side of an abandoned building. I love that she doesn’t hesitate to call out Robbie (her crush and guide to the world of shadowshaping) when he’s not making sense. Robbie’s not the only one Sierra calls out. I was cheering for her in the scene where she shuts down her aunt. Sierra has to deal with too real situations of racism and sexism. She takes ownership of her power. She’s confident in her own skin. She steps up for her friends even when she’s afraid. I can see Sierra inspiring a lot of young women.
“You ever look at those old family albums Mom keeps around?” Sierra went on. “We ain’t white. And you shaming everyone and looking down your nose because you can’t even look in the mirror isn’t gonna change that. And neither is me marrying someone paler than me. And I’m glad! I love my hair. I love my skin. I didn’t ask your opinion about my life and I don’t wanna hear it. Not now, not ever.” (151-152)
If Sierra’s my favourite part of Shadowshaper, Older’s world building comes in a close second. He fuses his magical world of shadowshaping with the real world of Brooklyn in such a way that his story reads true. Shadowshaping (the ability to bring one’s art to life by channeling spirits through it) is a pretty cool concept. Older has created a fast-paced and action-filled story by providing just the right amount of information on shadowshaping – no info dumping or leaving out key details here. He leaves room to expand on the concept and community in future books.
Shadowshaping comes to life in the setting Older creates. This story could not be set anywhere other than Brooklyn, where Older lives and spent years working as a paramedic. The setting, in turn, is brought to life by its characters. Sierra isn’t the only cool kid in this story. Her friends, integral to the story, are just as well-defined as Sierra. I could imagine any one of them starring in their own story (I was excited to learn there’s a novella from the perspectives of girlfriends Izzy and Tee). The conversations between all characters (not just Sierra and her teen friends) flow so realistically, I felt like I was eavesdropping.
There are a lot of great things going on in this novel and I feel like I’ve only superficially scratched the surface. Whether you’re looking for a creative contemporary fantasy or for a young adult novel that doesn’t back down from topics such as racial identity and white supremacy, Shadowshaper is an excellent read.
The Bottom Line:
Shadowshaper finally has me hooked on an urban fantasy series! A fast-paced story built on a cast of a diverse characters, I’m looking forward to what Sierra gets up to in the forthcoming sequel Shadowshouse.