YA – I Must Betray You

Sepetys, Ruta. I Must Betray You. Philomel Books, 2022. 978-1-984-83603-8. 320 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12.

Romania, 1989. Seventeen-year-old high school student, Cristian Florescu, gets blackmailed into informing on the American family his mother cleans for. In exchange for spying on the Van Dorns, he will receive much-needed medicine for his beloved Bunu–grandfather–who has been diagnosed with leukemia and lives with Cristian, his older sister, Cici, and his parents in a cramped, one- bedroom apartment in Bucharest. Tormented by guilt for betraying the trust of his loved ones, Cristian records his feelings in his notebook, an exercise that serves well his aspiration to be a writer. Informers and reporters ooze out of the dank, grey apartment buildings like the cockroaches that live within the dim hallways. Urged or manipulated by the regime instituted by their country’s leader, Nicolae Ceaușescu, even these informers are being informed on. Furthermore, Cristian is driven to suspect the integrity of his own family members. He quickly realizes the desperation of his situation, especially after his informer status affects the budding romance with his classmate, Lilianna Pavel, and almost ruins his friendship with the kind, gentle Luca Oprea. He resolves to follow his orders to get close to Dan Van Dorn, the American diplomat’s son, while recording the grim daily existence of living under Ceaușescu’s dictatorship. When life turns even more tragic for Cristian, the dissolution of the Soviet bloc becomes a reality, and the citizens of Romania, led by the university students and the young, bravely take their stand. Author Ruta Septys is at her best with this suspenseful recounting of lives lived under extreme oppression: punishment for owning anything from the Western world, endless lines to obtain necessities, limited use of utilities, and constant surveillance of one’s every movement and word. This well-researched and engaging work is an eye opener, not only about an existence under Communism, but the political ploys that supported Ceaușescu’s power.

THOUGHTS: This story is riveting! In the eyes of many heads of state during his thirty-year reign, Nicolae Ceausecu was an improvement over the other Communist leaders. In truth, the Romanian people were suffering great hardships, both physical and mental. Cristian’s compliance in being an informer in exchange for medication forms an ethical dilemma. Moreover, his perspective on our American way of life emphasizes our freedoms that may be taken for granted. Besides the obvious history lesson, I Will Betray You, addresses values, self-identity, and matters of conscience.

Historical Fiction          Bernadette Cooke  School District of Philadelphia

YA – Walls

Elliott, Laura, and Megan Behm. Walls. Algonquin, 2021. 978-1-643-75024-8. $19.95. 352 p. Grades 7-12.

It is 1960, and Drew MacMahon and his family have recently relocated to West Germany. Drew’s mother is thrilled, since her family emigrated to the United States in 1934, and she is eager to reconnect with the great aunt, sister, and nephew that still live behind the “Iron Curtain” on the East Berlin side of the city. Drew has more reserved feelings about his family’s move; he is nervous about starting a new school and meeting his estranged extended East German family. Although he finds his cousin and aunts difficult to understand at first, he develops a tremendous amount of empathy for them and the harshness of life under Communist rule. Over the course of one tumultuous year, Drew tries to navigate his complicated new family members, the tensions of living so close to the border between East and West Germany, and problems of his new schoolmates.  At the end of the story, he and his cousin must make a terrifying decision that will change all their lives forever.

THOUGHTS: The family dynamics between Drew, his parents, his sisters, and his East German family are realistic and poignant in this book. Watching Drew’s character and sense of right and wrong, good and evil, and efforts to understand the motivations of his friends at school and the people on both sides of the Cold War was fascinating. The detailed photographs and captions at the beginning of each chapter help the reader gain much-needed context and a greater understanding of the cultural and political climate in the early 1960’s for this important historical novel.

Historical Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

YA – Last Night at the Telegraph Club

Lo, Malinda. Last Night at the Telegraph Club. Dutton Books, 2021. 978-0-525-55525-4. 409 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Lily Hu has always been the ideal Chinese-American girl: She does well in school, she has nice Chinese-American friends, and she never disobeys her parents. She never stands out except that she wants a career in space – not appropriate for a young lady in the 1950s. And lately, there is something else stirring inside her that Lily can’t quite put her finger on, but she knows it will not please her parents. At school, Lily starts hanging out with Kath, a fellow aviation enthusiast. After seeing an enticing ad in the newspaper, Lily desperately wants to go to the Telegraph Club, a nightclub in San Francisco that features a singer by the name of Tommy Andrews. Tommy is a female performer who impersonates a man on stage, and while Lily doesn’t quite understand what this means, she is intrigued. Kath has visited the nightclub before, so she and Lily sneak out to watch Tommy perform at the Telegraph. After a few late night visits, her relationship with Kath grows much deeper. Lily realizes what was stirring in her all along: She is a lesbian, and she loves Kath. Lily does not want to hide who she is, but she must figure out how her new, true identity coincides with the identity her parents have wanted for her since birth. 

THOUGHTS: Malinda Lo’s novel has many intricate layers to it. In the 1950s, many Chinese-Americans were forced to denounce Communism or risk deportation. At the same time, many young ladies were trying to figure out if there was more to life after high school than marriage and children. These events are happening in the background of Lily’s story along with the discovery of her LGBTQ identity, a taboo topic in the 50s. The events in this novel circle around the stigma of bucking against conventional society, and this still rings true even 70 years later. A must-have for high school libraries.

Historical Fiction          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

YA – Your Heart, My Sky

Engle, Margarita. Your Heart, My Sky. Simon & Schuster, 2021. 208 pp. 978-1-5344-64964 $18.99 Grades 9-12.

Engle focuses on a difficult time in Cuba’s history lived through by her own relatives. Euphemistically named by the government as “the special period in times of peace,” the 1990s are in reality a time of starvation. Strict rules keep Cubans from growing their own food; U.S. embargo limits trade; and most recently, Russia has dropped its promised support of the Communist nation, leaving commoners struggling for daily food and afraid to speak out, knowing that retribution comes in the form of limited opportunities, fewer rations, prison or death. Two young people, Liana and Amado, find their hunger gives them strength to defy the government-required summer volunteer work, even as they dread the consequences. Amado’s older brother is in prison for speaking out against the government. Liana is befriended by a ‘singing dog’ Paz who becomes her daily companion in search of food, and the dog brings her and Amado together. The two fall in love and consider their limited future options. Leave the island for the dangerous attempt to reach Miami? Or remain in their homeland to share and fight the deprivation with loved ones? Engle’s beautiful verse, and switching between Liana, Amado, and Paz’s voices, gives this novel depth and richness. 

THOUGHTS: Moving words bring to life this time of desperation.       

Historical Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD