When the World Was Ours by Liz Kessler

When the World Was Ours by Liz Kessler is a book filled with opposites; grief is coupled with hope, sadness with joy, and exhaustion with resilience. Based on a real story, this book causes you to feel and reflect upon a deeper level of the history of our worldand how we continue to move forward. 

Set during the Holocaust, three young friends are faced with the challenges of growing up in a time where acceptance is hard to come by. A single photograph reminds them of one perfect day spent together before Elsa is ripped from her family and sent to Auschwitz, Leo struggling to escape Vienna and the Nazis, and Max turning into a monster that values praise and reverence before the moral conscious of his mind. Separated through distance and life experiences, each must find their own way through the dark times of Nazi Germany. 

Liz Kessler paints a haunting story. It inspires anger, disgust, and immense sorrow for the painful blotch the Holocaust left on our history. Her images and language are powerful, heightened by the truth behind the words. This book is filled with shadows, but even so we see small glimmers of hope and perseverance in the family ties of our characters. The love they share is stronger than all the hate of those who participated in the monstrous acts of the Holocaust.

This book may not be an easy read, or necessarily a fun read, but I believe it is an important read to share the stories of the survivors in such a dark time. The writing itself is well done and the story important. I recommend for anyone seeking a more serious and thought provoking story.

Sing Me Forgotten by Jessica S. Olson

The book “Sing Me Forgotten” by Jessica S. Olson is a heart wrenching, gender swapped story based on “The Phantom of the Opera”. I am not familiar with “The Phantom of the Opera” myself so I don’t know how they compare, but I really enjoyed this book. It is about a girl, Isda, who is a gravior who lives in the dungeons of an opera house. Her mother tried to kill Idsa when she was born because graviors are believed to be dangerous due to their powers. When a person sings, Idsa can look into their memories and manipulate their emotions. The only reason Isda is still alive is because of Cyril who saved her from the well when her mother tried to kill her. Cyril is the owner of the opera house and lets Idsa live there since she can change how people feel about the performance which assures that the opera house stays in business. Isda is okay living in the opera house and experiencing the outside world through the memories of other people until she meets Emeric, who dreams of becoming a singer. When Emeric and Isda accidentally meet one night, Idsa offers to give him vocal lessons secretly. Isda sees this as a chance to look into Emeric’s past and learn new ways to use her powers, and to ensure that he stays at the opera house forever. The forbidden friendship between them quickly becomes more as together they discover the pure hatred society shoves toward things they fear. 
I really liked Isda’s character development throughout the story. She starts out as an outcast who’s too afraid to stand up for herself because she’s afraid she will become a monster. After she meets Emeric and starts giving him lessons, she starts to grow out of that fear and is more bold when talking to Cyril. When she finds out about Emeric’s sister she is brave enough to sneak into Cyril’s office and steal his book about graviors, which allows her to learn more about her powers. During the masquerade ball when her mask is taken off and her true identity is revealed she fights for her life and starts to care less about becoming a monster. At the end of the book when she saves Emeric from Cyril, she stops caring about trying to prove that graviors aren’t monsters and becomes one herself. I just like how she goes from actively making a point to not become what society thinks she is, to then realising that her only option is to do just that. For that reason, my favorite character is probably Isda, however I also really liked Emeric. He’s really sweet and cares a lot about Isda and his sister and just is an all-around nice person. I would recommend this book to any fan of “The Phantom of the Opera” since this book is based on that. I would also recommend this book to anyone who likes romance or slow-burn stories. 

The Light in Hidden Places by Sharon Cameron

Wow. The Light in Hidden Places by Sharon Cameron… what an incredible story. This novel is based on the heroic true story of sisters Stefania and little Helena Podgórska. They were young and alone in German occupied Przemyœl, Poland. With what little they had, they bravely decided to aid Jewish people in a time when that meant certain death. I want to try to avoid spoiling too much of the story in case you’re like me, and prefer to see the story unfold as you go. If you are like this, I would also suggest avoiding the synopsis, seeing as it is essentially an outline of the entire novel. I will however say that this book is extremely interesting, enjoyable, and worthwhile, and I simply couldn’t put it down. There are so many stories, like this one, of bravery during WWII surrounding The Holocaust that deserve to be told, and I was so glad that I was able to experience this one. This novel was incredibly inspiring and I would very highly recommend it to any fellow reader.

A Cloud of Outrageous Blue by Vesper Stamper

A Cloud of Outrageous Blue, by Vesper Stamper, tells the intricate story of a young girl named Edyth in the 1300s who sees the world in a different way than most people. She sees colors and vibrations and is filled with sensations when she hears new noises. She hears a constant Sound in the back of her mind. She imagines and draws complex and exciting sketches. After getting teased for explaining the way she sees colors, she realizes that she is different. With both of her parents dead and her brother Henry trying to scramble for food and work in their small town, Edyth is sent away to a priory in hopes that she will be able to live a good, stable life. Her world is completely changed from tending to animals and the house to Latin lessons, prayers every day, and a clean room to stay in. She settles in, not exactly feeling permanent in this new place but glad to have food and a bed to sleep on.

Suddenly, a sickness begins to sweep the nearby towns and eventually reaches the priory. Edyth senses something horrible coming with her visions and her drawings. The Great Plague sweeps up every living thing in its clutches. Edyth knows she is supposed to do something, but she can’t figure out what exactly. Can the way she sees life differently help her? Can the Sound lead her to a miracle to save the hundreds of dying people surrounding her?

A Cloud of Outrageous Blue is a beautiful story of celebrating one’s differences. Edyth learns to embrace her uniqueness and it in turn embraces the world. This historical fiction book is unlike anything I’ve ever read. It shares a distinctive side of the devastating Black Plague outbreak in England during the 1300s. The descriptions of how colors feel to Edyth are incredibly delicate and astonishing. Stamper writes a brand new history of this monumental time in Europe, and does so with grace and interest, as well as beautiful illustrations.

Spindle and Dagger by J. Anderson Coats

Spindle and Dagger by J. Anderson Coats is a historical fiction novel set in Wales in 1109. That fact alone was enough to draw me in. I have never read a book set in this time period, let alone heard much history about Wales at all, so I immediately wanted to pick it up. This book is about a girl named Elen who, to quote the synopsis on the back of my copy, “must live a precarious lie in order to survive among the medieval Welsh warband that killed her family”. Reading the full synopsis does give away a lot of information, including some details which take a long time to be fully explained. So, because of that, I am going to keep my description vague in case you wanna skip the details and go in blind so as to be more surprised by certain aspects.

In my opinion, the novel was quite a bit lacking in depth in everything from the plot to the characters. That said, I still found the story itself very intriguing. After I read it, I was surprised to learn that this is based on a real woman and story in 12th century Wales. Obviously the book is fiction, so some portions were embellished or added to make for a more compelling story, but I still find it incredibly cool that Elen and Nest were real women, and that Owain ap Cadwagan was a real Welsh prince. It was so interesting to learn the history of all the chaos in Wales and its relationships with other countries, however, what I found the most interesting was the accurate portrayal of women during this time period. Nowadays, we are so used to having strong independent powerful heroins as lead characters, so much so that the whole time I was reading, I was expecting Elen to start embodying that. However, I am very impressed by Coats’ decision to write the female characters correct to the time period, almost entirely powerless, because it made the book feel that much more real, as historical fiction novels should.

All in all, although it was a bit lacking, this was still a good book because of its’ unique inclusion of a very interesting lesser known piece of history. If you are a fan of historical fiction and you maybe haven’t read a book from this time period or if the story has just drawn you in like it had me, I very much suggest giving it a try.

Kent State by Deborah Wiles

I am sad to say that before reading Kent State by Deborah Wiles I had never heard about the shocking events which occurred at Kent State University from May 1-4, 1970. In school I briefly heard about Americans protesting the Vietnam War, but that wasn’t even in my history class. It’s a shame that events such as these are brushed over or grouped into a bigger movement because of how important it is to remember the past so that we can learn from it. The author treats this event as what it was, a lived experience. This novel is written in a way I’ve never seen a story told before, as a conversation. This allows the reader to get different perspectives and understand people’s varying emotions about the events of that day. The reader stands witness to the human need to place blame and point fingers, as well as the tendency of humans to misremember certain details. Overall, I found this novel both unique and compelling. I would strongly recommend this to other high schoolers who, like me, may not have heard this story before. It is a good reminder, especially as young people, to be present and informed in the happenings of our country and in the world because we truly are the future.

The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed

The Black Kids” by Christina Hammonds Reed is a very engaging narrative about race, violence, and self-worth. Ashley Bennet lives in Los Angeles in 1992 as an African-American high school senior. When a man named Rodney King is beaten to death, Ashely questions her place in society, as well as the decisions and microaggressions of her white friends that she had previously brushed off. She worries about her sister, who becomes involved in the riots over King’s beating and tries to come to terms with the rumor she spread about another Black classmate.

I enjoyed this book a lot. I thought the characters were very relatable and that the author portrayed a very authentic school experience. The small flashbacks to Ashley’s childhood were a nice touch to the story. I also thought Lucia (Ashley’s nanny) helped me better understand the somewhat rocky relationship Ashley had with her parents.

I would recommend this book to anyone right now, especially non-black teens wishing to educate themselves a little bit on racism. Seeing the Black experience of someone their age may be beneficial, and I found that this book had many parallels to the surge in the Black Lives Matter movement currently.

They Went Left by Monica Hesse

They Went Left, by Monica Hesse, tells the heartbreaking story of a Jewish girl named Zofia and her experiences after World War II and the Holocaust. After the Allied liberation, she was sent to a hospital to get better. Trauma and damage racked her brain and caused her memory to be fuzzy and spotty.
But there was one thing she always remembered: Abek. She had to find Abek, her younger brother. A to Z, Abek to Zofia. That’s what they had always said. Zofia set off on her spontaneous journey to find her brother. He was all she had left. When Zofia and her family arrived at Birkenau, Abek and her family went right in the separation line. The rest of her family went left. Hesse
combines the story of broken families and forgotten lives into the tale of Zofia and her brother Abek. This story is so raw but so necessary; it explores the true experiences of the Holocaust and the happenings of the surviors afterward– a part of the story that isn’t heard very often. They Went Left gives real heartbreak and hatred, but it also provides the idea of hope in the darkest times. It explores a different kind of family, and the ability to patch open wounds. They Went Left reveals the mystery of Abek and Zofia, and the new worlds built up after the war and the Nazis destroyed the old one.

Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai

Butterfly Yellow by Thanhhà Lại is a realistic/historical fiction about Hằng, a refugee from Vietnam, during the time of the Vietnam war. Years ago, Hằng was separated from her younger brother Linh. Linh was brought to America, and Hằng goes to great lengths to find him.

After her traumatizing journey from Vietnam, Hằng arrives in Texas, ready to find Linh, six years later. She can barely speak English, but bumps into LeeRoy, a young adult attempting to become a cowboy. They reluctantly find work near Hằng’s brother, and Hằng struggles to relate to him. Linh remembers nothing of her or their family. Despite this obstacle, Hằng will try as hard as she can to bring back the brother she once knew.

This story was very engaging. Thanhhà Lại uses enthralling descriptive phrases and has a prominent writing voice. A few parts of the narrative were slightly confusing, but it did not take away from my general experience.

I would most certainly recommend this book to lovers of historical fiction and realistic fiction.

White Rose by Kip Wilson

Hope:(n) grounds for believing that something good may happen.
Synonym: This book.
No matter how dark and ugly the world may seem, there will always be those who shine bright just by the goodness in their heart and the strong will to spread that amongst others. Sophie Scholl, and her brother, Hans Scholl, are two such people whose brave lives we embark upon – till the end – in this beautiful poetically written novel.
Sophie was a free-spirited, optimistic girl with high ambitions – but when Hitler’s reign in Germany starts, things took a less positive path for her. Sophie reflects on her life drastically changing from a quiet school-girl to a selfless, radical rebel. Granted she was a German citizen, she was never on the side of violence, or the genocide of an entire group of people (whoever is?), and was against it from the beginning. But this feeling of hatred for Hitler and his actions of mass-murder in the name of Germany, became more prominent when her brothers and boyfriend were sent off to join the army, where youths were losing their lives, just for his thirst for power.
After reading a pamphlet that speaks out against Hitler, Sophie and Hans were driven to do the same, notifying people about the atrocities that are taking place – and encouraging them to stand up against the man – whose words were to make the nation a better place, but his actions proved otherwise.
Albeit not having a happy ending (which is mentioned beforehand), the rebellious stands taken by the young people of that time, is nothing less than a step at ensuring hope amongst readers of all ages – over and over again.
If you want to know what courage, conviction, strength, and finding the good in the ugliest of times means – this book is it…