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

Cristian Florescu is a 17 year old Romanian boy, and life certainly isn’t easy.  When he is blackmailed into being an informant for the government, he has no choice but to accept. His goal is to gain the trust of the son of the American ambassador so that he can report any suspicious activity from within their home. Through this new friendship, Cristian begins to realize how different his life in Romania is from the rest of the world. Like others in his country, he wants to expose Romanian life to the rest of the world, but when friends and family could be spies as well, it’s not safe for Cristian to even speak of such things. Will he find the strength to join the revolution, or is there too much at stake, including his life?

THOUGHTS:  I Must Betray You is a historical fiction account of Romanian life in the late 1980s under the rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Until reading this book, I had never heard the name Nicolae Ceaușescu. After reading this book, I did my own research into the communist rule in Romania and discovered how oppressive life truly was. I was horrified, and at times, I felt as if I was reading a WWII historical fiction novel rather than one set in 1989. I’d highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, especially since it shines light on a time in history that may not be as familiar with readers. 

Historical Fiction          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

MG – The Year I Flew Away

Arnold, Marie. The Year I Flew Away. Versify, 2021. 978-0-358-27275-5. 285 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Marie Arnold establishes herself as a gifted storyteller, weaving realistic setting with a magical tale involving a talking rat, wishes, and witches. Ten-year-old Gabrielle Jean’s Haitian family sends her to live with her uncle and aunt in Flatbush, a busy neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, until they can save enough funds to join her. She looks forward to the American Dream, but it doesn’t take long before it is shattered. Classmates make fun of her accent; she feels strange and left out. Though Carmen, a Mexican-American girl, is anxious to be her friend, Gabrielle still feels incredibly lonely and unmoored from her friends and immediate family in Haiti. These bleak feelings motivate her to make a deal with the witch, Lady Lydia, in Prospect Park. Lady Lydia gives Gabrielle three magic mango slices. Each one represents a wish; each wish granted brings Gabrielle closer to Lady Lydia capturing her essence. With the first mango slice, Gabrielle loses her accent, making her better understood and accepted by the other students. The second mango slice is even more powerful. After eating it, Gabrielle not only erases her memories of Haiti but also entails the added consequence of losing her entire Flatbush family. Seemingly, Gabrielle’s wishes have been fulfilled. Her classmates believe they have known Gabrielle forever and believe she was born in America, but, of course, she cannot be happy without her aunt, uncle, the toddler twins, and teen-age cousin. It troubles her that she can no longer communicate in Haitian Creole. Rocky, a rat Gabrielle encounters on the street, nicely translates for her and helps Gabrielle problem solve how she will outwit Lady Lydia (though Rocky has its own unfulfilled wish to be a rabbit). As the school looks forward to Culture Day, Gabrielle tries to resist the last mango and still save her family. She knows she needs the help of a good witch to counteract this bad witch who desires a homogenous Brooklyn where perfection is everyone is the same. Arnold whips up a twenty-first century fairy tale to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion that blends American patriotism, pride in and acceptance of differences, and appreciation of one’s heritage.

THOUGHTS: If Kate DiCamillo is an author who demonstrates the beauty of language, then Marie Arnold is an author who demonstrates the beauty of storytelling. Accessible, genuine, and creative, Ms. Arnold weaves an unusual tale (sometimes I had to stretch my believability especially when Gabrielle cozies up to vermin who wishes to be a rabbit) that builds to a crescendo of patriotism, pride in one’s culture and heritage. Realistically, most sixth grade students may not have the ability to wax eloquently about their backgrounds, yet Arnold has Gabrielle come to the realization that a person can be an immigrant loyal to the country of one’s birth and equally be an American, loyal to a new country. An added bonus is the character of Mrs. Bartell, the solicitous school librarian who happens to be Haitian-American and helps Gabrielle every step of the way.

Fantasy          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia
Magic Realism

YA – We Are Not Free

Chee, Traci. We Are Not Free. Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2020. 978-0-358-13143-4. $17.99. 384 p. Grades 9 and up.

Traci Chee’s National Book Award Finalist, We Are Not Free, takes the reader from the close-knit community of Japantown in San Francisco at the start of World War II to the gradual closing of the Japanese imprisonment camps at the end of the war. Told in first-person narrative, each teen—ranging from ages 14 to 19–brings a perspective of life as an American of Japanese descent, from the growing discrimination toward the Japanese after the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the injustices of the camps to the explicit racism displayed when their families return to their former neighborhood. In a novel where credible character development is critical, author Chee shows a wide range of astute writing ability inhabiting the minds of the varied group of young people inhabiting two camps, Topaz and Tule Lake. Sensitive Aiko Harano who at only 13 realizes not only the unfairness of the American government’s oppression of her family and friends, but also the repugnancy of her own parents’ abusive treatment of her older brother, Tommy. Intellectual Stan Katsumoto surrenders his hard-earned dream of continuing his college education when he sides with his parents in being a “No No” person: refusing to relinquish allegiance to the Japanese emperor when no allegiance had ever been formed. Perhaps the most impressive chapter is David “Twitchy” Hashimoto’s, the happy-go-lucky, ever-moving nineteen-year-old who, like several of his friends, volunteered to serve in the military, to go to war. The battle description Chee develops with Twitchy’s commentary is both action-packed and gut-wrenching. Though there are other selections telling of the imprisonment of the Japanese-Americans (in an afterword, Chee advises to delete the term, Japanese internment, in favor of more accurate terms like incarceration, imprisonment, forced removal), We Are Not Free dives deep into what it was like in the camps and how it affected a non-combative community. Works like Journey to Topaz  by Yoshiko Uchida, Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata, or Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban—to name just a few–give readers a glimpse into this ignominious period of American history, but We Are Not Free covers the full scope and does so through the voices of teens with whom young readers can relate. This book tells a powerful story, one that has not always been fully explored, but has a new resonance in today’s society. Contains further readings, some historical images.

Historical Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

THOUGHTS: After reading this book, I feel that all the other historical fiction books on this topic are just a prelude. If I had to choose one book to recommend on the experience in Japanese prison camps to a high school student, We Are Free would be the one. Chee is able to reveal the complications of feeling American and patriotic while also feeling unaccepted by and disheartened by one’s government. In literature lessons, students can examine the character development in a short chapter. In history class, the revelations of injustices and wrongs can be debated and discussed.