In their own words

Learning about people through their own words can bring teens closer to fascinating subjects — as in these memoirs for middle schoolers and high schoolers. Find more in the Guide/Reviews Database, subject: Autobiographies.

Walk Toward the Rising Sun: From Child Soldier to Ambassador of Peace
by Ger Duany with Garen Thomas
High School    Make Me a World/Random    320 pp.    g
9/20    978-1-5247-1940-1    $18.99
Library ed.  978-1-5247-1941-8    $21.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5247-1942-5    $11.99

In this vivid memoir, Duany recounts his experience as a Lost Boy. After surviving an ambush, six-year-old Ger and his family flee their village in South Sudan, the first of many moves during the Second Sudanese Civil War. While his father and older brothers fight for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), Ger feels pressured to care for his younger siblings, and struggles to define his own role. As instability ensues, and despite his brother’s pleas to focus on school, Ger begins fighting other boys in refugee camps and ultimately becomes a child soldier, cleaning weapons and running errands for older SPLA soldiers. After a particularly violent clash, Ger seizes on an opportunity to escape the rising tensions around him and be moved to the United States, via Ethiopia, Kenya, and Germany, eventually becoming a model, an actor, and a peace activist. Duany incorporates words and customs of his native Nuer people, providing authenticity and specificity to the narrative. The matter-of-fact descriptions of loss and violence, coupled with Duany’s unabashed honesty about the emotional impact of trauma (including descriptions of crying, nightmares, insomnia, and other effects of PTSD), make this a powerful account. GABI K. HUESCA

by Sylvie Kantorovitz; illus. by the author
Intermediate, Middle School, High School    Walker US/Candlewick    352 pp.    g
2/21    978-1-5362-0762-0    $24.99
Paper ed.  978-1-5362-0763-7    $16.99

Author-illustrator Kantorovitz’s (Zig and the Magic Umbrella, rev. 5/15) graphic memoir is an engaging and thoughtful story of an observant child who grows into a young adult eager to pursue teaching and art. Kantorovitz and her siblings lived at a teacher-training college in France where her father was the principal. They had the run of the campus, and Sylvie eventually moved into her own private room, a “kingdom” separate from her family’s apartment. Her childhood was marked by her mother’s moods and her high academic expectations for Sylvie — “it doesn’t count if the others also got As.” With relatively few words, Kantorovitz describes her parents’ difficult marriage and the support she received from her father; it was he who encouraged Sylvie’s love of and talent for art. The book’s design is open and friendly. Large cartoon-style illustrations, sometimes just one to a page, are uncluttered and attractive, making them inviting even while they explore difficult themes, including Sylvie’s fear that her Jewish faith will set her apart from her friends and classmates. Even at a hefty 350-plus pages, the book looks so approachable that it will likely attract a wide range of readers who will discover a strong story about navigating family, school, and friendships while finding one’s purpose. MAEVE VISSER KNOTH

Everything Sad Is Untrue: (A True Story)
by Daniel Nayeri
Middle School    Levine Querido    368 pp.    g
8/20    978-1-64614-000-8    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-64614-002-2    $9.99

Framed loosely as his twelve-year-old self’s responses to a series of school assignments, Nayeri’s fictionalized memoir swirls through his own memories as well as stories from his family history, circling around major events and pausing to include his Oklahoma classmates’ reactions to his tales of early childhood in Iran. This structure means the story takes some time to pick up speed — which it does once it goes into more focused detail about Nayeri’s family’s journey: their quick escape from Iran after his mother’s life was threatened because she had converted to Christianity; his father’s decision to stay behind. The buildup comprises tangent upon tangent — Nayeri alludes frequently to Scheherazade’s stringing together of stories in the 1,001 Nights — but those tangents are absorbing and full of universalizing detail and humor (there’s more than one poop anecdote). This tale is constantly focused on its telling, with references to an imagined audience and reminders of who characters are. The actual audience is a bit of a puzzle, as the twelve-year-old narrator’s tale spans a wide range of ages in his life and those of his family members, and the overall sensibility seems more adult than not. An author’s note acknowledges the fallibility of memory as well as some deliberate alterations; it is, as Nayeri puts it, “both fiction and nonfiction at the same time.” SHOSHANA FLAX

Notes from a Young Black Chef: Adapted for Young Adults
by Kwame Onwuachi with Joshua David Stein
Middle School, High School    Delacorte    288 pp.    g
4/21    978-0-593-17600-9    $17.99
Library ed.  978-0-593-17601-6    $20.99
e-book ed.  978-0-593-17602-3    $10.99

When chef Kwame Onwuachi opened his high-end (if ultimately ill-fated) restaurant Shaw Bijou atop the then-new National Museum of African American History and Culture, the significance of the moment was not lost on him. He knew he was “standing on stories,” including those recalled by exhibits of whips and shackles and a stack of bricks the height of a man, each representing a person enslaved by Thomas Jefferson. As a Black chef in America, Onwuachi intends to keep the stories alive, from Africa, the Middle Passage, and all of the “thousands of black and brown chefs — called cooks, domestics, servants, boys, and mammies who were kept out of restaurant kitchens (or overlooked within them).” He traces the influences that led him from Bronx streets and projects, to Louisiana, to Nigeria, to an oil clean-up ship in the Gulf, to drug dealing in college, and on to the Culinary Institute of America, food competitions (including Top Chef), and Thomas Keller’s acclaimed New York City restaurant Per Se. This adaptation for young readers effectively prunes and tightens sentences, removes swear words, and takes out the recipes (as étouffée, chicken consommé, corn velouté, and egusi stew might not be big draws for young palates). While Onwuachi notes the challenges of being a Black chef in a white food culture, his dream is to see kitchens full of “white, yellow, brown, and black faces” and restaurants full of “brown and black diners, who, looking at their plates, feel seen, celebrated, and recognized.” DEAN SCHNEIDER

The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival
by Amra Sabic-El-Rayess with Laura L. Sullivan
High School    Bloomsbury    384 pp.    g
9/20    978-1-5476-0453-1    $19.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5476-0455-5    $13.99

This suspenseful memoir, set between 1992 and 1998, opens just before the author’s northwestern Bosnian town of Bihać is changed by war. Serbians (who’ve had warning) evacuate overnight, schools and businesses abruptly close, and the town’s remaining Muslim population is under siege by Serbian soldiers. Amidst this turmoil, a stray calico cat follows sixteen-year-old Amra home. Amra calls the stray Maci, the Bosnian word for cat, and the cat comforts and even, in a sense, protects Amra: for instance, because she chases Maci on the way home from school, Amra avoids a sniper attack. Amra comes to believe the cat is a guardian angel or benevolent spirit. She details her family’s gradual decline, as they endure poverty and malnutrition under siege for three years, and finally her own move to the U.S. on an academic scholarship. Though she never shies away from difficult topics such as the threat of rape, feeling forgotten by the international community, or post-war corruption, she always brings the story back to Maci, a metaphor for love that “never dies” and “withstands distance and time.” This fast-paced, touching memoir reminds readers of the significance of the Balkan ethnic war and places it into a larger conversation about the ways in which ethnically and religiously diverse societies are under threat from extremism and bigotry. An author’s note and resource list encourage further engagement. JULIE HAKIM AZZAM

From the June 2021 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Horn Book
Horn Book

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.


Get access to reviews of books, ebooks, and more


We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing.