Flight from Syria: Refugee Stories, ed. Kem Knapp Sawyer

syria

Flight from Syria: Refugee Stories is a collection of nonfiction articles by nine journalists about the Syrian refugee crisis. It is an ebook, and can be found for free on Amazon here. It addresses issues like foreign aid, refugee camps, assimilation into other countries, and the effect of the crisis on children, and because it is composed of articles, it includes many personal stories, interviews, and photographs. I especially liked the interviews and photos, which gave the information presented in the book a human, emotional connection, and prevented the more factual sections from becoming boring. I also appreciated the multiple perspectives on the crisis provided by the different writers. I would recommend this book to anyone as a useful resource for increasing awareness about critical current issues surrounding the refugee crisis — for instance, the measures taken by the US to bar refugees from entering the country, and the the plight of refugees living in overcrowded, under-funded camps and towns.

Even though this is a nonfiction book, it still explores many themes that might be found in novels, like the value of home, and the responsibility of people with privilege to help those who are less privileged. Because of this, aspects of the book that might seem intimidating (like the journalistic language and the frequent references to people, events, and places) are still manageable, since they are tied together by broad and timeless themes. Overall, then, I think Flight from Syria is a worthwhile read that is very relevant today, and can still be enjoyable for people who are usually less interested in nonfiction.

By: Anja Hendrikse Liu

Sawyer, Kem Knapp, ed. Flight from Syria: Refugee Stories. Washington, DC: Pulitzer Center, 2015. Web.

Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin

symptoms

I’ll make a confession: As I began reading Symptoms of Being Human, I didn’t think I’d learn a lot from the book. After all, it’s about a gender fluid teen — but my sister, many of my friends, and I all identify as LGBTQ+, and I’ve done a good amount of reading and thinking about gender identity. But my assumption was very wrong. Not only did this book draw me in with an engaging story and characters, it also highlighted for me just how deep my assumptions about gender identity and expression run.

Symptoms of Being Human follows the story of Riley, a high schooler who starts an anonymous blog about the experience of being gender fluid — which, in Riley’s case, means sometimes feeling more like a girl, sometimes more like a boy, and sometimes neither. Riley is not out at home or at school, but when the blog goes viral, a malicious classmate discovers who is behind it and begins threatening Riley. Riley must navigate the situation at school while simultaneously finding friends, a girlfriend, and a place in the LGBTQ+ community.

Although the plot itself is predictable sometimes, that was much less important to me than the remarkably pointed way in which Garvin challenges readers’ preconceptions. That point was driven home when Riley attends a gender and sexuality support group, and assumes that a transgender man is a woman based on his appearance. Riley says, “This is the second time in as many weeks that I’ve misjudged someone else’s gender identity. I feel a pang of shame; like everyone else, my instinct is to put people in a category” (154). In that moment, I realized that I was doing exactly the same thing: mentally assigning a male/female identity to Riley, trying to categorize every action and thought as “masculine” or “feminine” — even though Riley’s gender fluidity is made clear from page 1. Symptoms of Being Human is filled with striking examples of this kind of judgement and its effects on Riley and other characters. This does mean that Garvin addresses bullying, suicide, sexual assault, and other difficult topics. However, the representation of these issues in the books does not feel gratuitous; rather, it gives readers an important opportunity to learn about both themselves and the concrete issues that Garvin tackles.

Finally, one of the main ideas of the book is that Riley has many identities and traits beyond gender fluidity, including an interest in music and a talent for writing. Indeed, Garvin uses Symptoms of Being Human to emphasize the similarities shared even by outwardly different people. This makes the story an engaging choice for anyone regardless of gender identity, and especially for teens who are trying to find community and identity. Also, it reinforces the importance of acceptance, respect, and trying to understand people with identities other than our own — a message that feels extraordinarily significant in today’s world.

By: Anja Hendrikse Liu

Garvin, Jeff. Symptoms of Being Human. New York: Balzer + Bray, 2016. Print.

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

8306857“‘What could have been’ is much more highly regarded than ‘what should have been,’” fifteen-year-old Caden muses. “Dead kids are put on pedestals, but mentally ill kids get hidden under the rug” (168).

In Challenger Deep, Neal Shusterman lifts up that rug to tell Caden’s story, using alternating sections set in the real world and the world of his mind. In real life, he’s a high schooler who becomes increasingly paranoid and delusional until he is hospitalized; in his mind, he is part of the crew of a pirate ship on a mission to the Challenger Deep, the deepest point in the ocean. As Caden’s fantasies begin to converge on the real world, he must navigate his competing loyalties and relationships, and try to survive his journey through unknown and dangerous territory.

This book provides insight into the life of a teen struggling with schizophrenia, but unlike many YA books about similar topics, it avoids romanticizing his experience. Caden grapples with intense episodes and personal reflections throughout the book, and Challenger Deep gives readers a glimpse into the surreal, tangled workings of his mind. Shusterman based this book on his son Brendan’s experiences with mental illness, and the book includes drawings by Brendan, which help to give a sense of how Caden sees the world. This makes the book intensely personal, and at times difficult to read. But the challenge is worthwhile: it gives readers, perhaps, a new understanding and compassion for those with mental illnesses, or at the very least a nuanced and moving perspective on a group that is so often marginalized and stereotyped by society.

As Shusterman writes in his author’s note, the honesty of the book may help some to “know that they are not alone.” But people who don’t have experience with mental illness will still find Caden’s story engaging and thought-provoking. It explores universal themes like trust, friendship, and the importance of life. Above all, Shusterman’s book is also a story of determination and tentative hope, of “deep, abiding comfort… to carry [us] through till tomorrow” (308).

Although the parallel settings of Challenger Deep are sometimes confusing, Caden’s nautical journey perfectly symbolizes his real-life turmoil, and illustrates his experiences for readers. Shusterman’s imagery is particularly effective, and there are several truly heartbreaking and harrowing moments, especially in the second half of the book. However, I found the pacing to be a little slow, and I wished that the story could’ve been told in 75 fewer pages. Nonetheless, the brief, insightful chapters helped to make the book seem shorter, and Shusterman’s experiments with perspective, time, and reality provided interest throughout the book. Overall, Challenger Deep is a truthful story of journeys and choices that will appeal to both young people and adults.

By: Anja Hendrikse Liu

Shusterman, Neal. Challenger Deep. New York: HarperTeen, 2015. Print.