Book Review: Half of a Yellow Sun—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Every now and then, I come across a book written, not by an author, but by a storyteller. Someone who has mastered the art and power of language. Half of a Yellow Sun immediately struck me as a novel written by such a person. Raw, real, revolutionary, it was one of those books I lost myself in. I forgot I was reading, I was so immersed in the story.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a way of writing that is both hard-hitting and beautiful. In the past, Bridget and I have talked about books that contained language so beautiful, we felt compelled to write it down. If I’m being truthful, this was not one of those books. There wasn’t a line that stood out or that compelled me to record it. Rather, the words did one thing and one thing only–that was convey the brutally fragile humanity of a society in turmoil. It wasn’t the words that stood out, but the characters. It wasn’t the language that drew me in, but the complexities of the relationships Adichie so expertly navigated. It wasn’t poetry, but stark portrayal of loss and remorse, triumph and love that kept me coming back for more. Adichie didn’t just write a story–she captured a volatile record of a country in wartime. And she did all of these things expertly.

To say I loved this novel would be to misspeak. The terminology would be all wrong. Rather, this novel challenged me intellectually. It filled me with questions. It drew me in. I respected this novel. I knew, right away that I would recommend this novel. In short, Half of a Yellow Sun did what a good novel should do. It made me notice and experience it.

You will not find any book quotes in this post. But you will find a challenge–if you are looking for someone who so expertly depicts the complexities of the human condition, then I challenge you to go out and read this book. Experience this book. Because it is a novel of true, masterful storytelling, and it deserves to be experienced.


Book Review: The Astonishing Color of After

I saw the stain after they removed my mother, after someone had made the first attempt at cleaning it out of the carpet. Even then it was still dark and wide, oblong and hideous. Barely the shape of a mother.

It’s easier to pretend the stain is acrylic paint. Pigment, emulsion. Water soluble until it dries.

The one part that’s hard to pretend about: Spilled paint is only ever an accident.

The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan is one of the most beautifully written books, especially within YA Lit, that I’ve read in a very long time. In the beginning, I set out with the intention to capture beautifully crafted sentences I came across, but I soon realized that there were so many beautifully crafted sentences that I would basically be transcribing the entire book.

The story follows Leigh, a young Asian American trying to cope with life after her mother’s suicide. Convinced that her mother has come back to her in the form of a red-plumed bird, Leigh follows a box of trinkets left on her doorstep to Thailand, her mother’s native country. While there, she relives memories, both her own and those of her Thai family. These memories teach her about who she is, who her mother was, and why her family has experienced this tragic loss.

Pan does an amazing job of painting the picture of Leigh’s heartbreaking new reality…reading Pan’s writing is a synesthetic experience, and such a beautiful experience it is! I couldn’t help being continually and pleasantly surprised by the vivid pictures erupting in my mind with each and every scene.

This book is an amazing read for students who have lost a loved one, whether to suicide or some other tragedy. It shows that suicide is an illness, and one that no one experiences alone. It also shows the complexities that lead to such a decision, as well as the ramifications for those left behind.

I give The Astonishing Color of After a full five stars. A debut novel, I can’t wait to see what else this author has in store.

The plane angles and tilts, and I fight the gravitational force, leaning to press my face into the glass. I catch a glimpse of the clouds below, and the edge of our shadow upon them, shaped like a bird.


Book Review: Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

Every now and then, you get your hands on a book that awakens something within you.

As I was reading McCullough’s Blood Water Paint, I couldn’t help thinking that this was a book I would want to share with my daughter. I immediately placed it in the hands of a female student when I made it back to work on Monday (I had started the book Saturday and finished it by Sunday). I couldn’t wait to tell Bridget about it…In short, this was a book I knew needed to be talked about.

Blood Water Paint is written partially in verse, partially in prose. A story about Artemisia Gentileschi, an artist in seventeenth century Italy, McCullough turns this amazing woman’s story into one that is both powerful and relatable, despite the distance in time.

The night my mother

finally slipped

from pain

to nothingness

I slumped to sleep

with tear-drenched sheets

and woke to blood.

The verse sections provide the reader a glimpse into Artemisia’s inner turmoil as she tries to navigate young womanhood without a strong female role model. Interspersed throughout are prose pieces in the voice of her deceased mother, relating the stories of Biblical women told to Artemisia throughout her childhood–stories which teach Artemisia the trials women must go through as they navigate a patriarchal society. The juxtaposition of the two women’s voices is powerful and incredibly haunting. Readers get a sense of the bond between mother and daughter that remains strong, despite death and absence.

Artemisia is an apprentice for her father, who is an artist…these terms are used loosely, for it is Artemisia who paints, while her father simply signs his name to her work.

In an effort to make a strong artistic connection to advance his career, the father has renowned artist Agostino come in to tutor Artemisia. Agostino uses his power, influence, and charm to seduce and eventually rape Artemisia. This act is made more horrific by the fact that Artemisia had begun to fall for Tino, as she called him, before she realized the kind of man he truly was. Her relationship with him had awakened her, both to the power in her ability to paint, as well as to the power in her awakening sexuality. However, after he rapes her, Artemisia descends into depression, during which she can no longer express herself through her art, and instead is haunted by the stories her mother told her as a child.

The front door slams

and slams again

as Father hurries after

Agostino, to beg

forgiveness from

my rapist.

Throughout this experience, Artemisia must deal with feelings of abandonment. Despite the likelihood that her rape was overheard by her brothers and maidservant, no one comes to her rescue. She realizes that, in her world, no one is going to help her–in seventeenth century Italy, women had no rights. Spurred to action by a desire for justice, as well as a desire to be heard, she takes Agostino to court; her case is founded on the idea that her father’s property (i.e. Artemisia) has been damaged. The case drags on for years, and Artemisia must endure humiliation, torture, and mutilation to try to prove her honesty so that her rapist will not walk away unpunished.

I take a length of cloth

and hold it to my head–

a wedding veil.

I do not regret the days of make-believe,

but for every time I played at bride

I should have played at goddess


warrior queen.

This is such a powerful story for young women. It shows the intricacies of navigating womanhood, desire, and sexism, and even though Artemisia’s world is that of Italy in the 1600s, I still found I could relate to her story as a modern woman.

McCullough does a fantastic job of taking a real life figure, whose story was powerful in and of itself, and creating a work that is profound, poetic, and moving. I would highly recommend this book, especially to teenage girls, who can find a powerful, true-to-life role model in the young Artemisia.

Feminist Friday: Using YA Lit to Tackle Controversial Topics in the Classroom

“Mrs. Brown, will you debate with me (about abortion)?”

“Mrs. Brown, do you believe in God?”

“Mrs. Brown, teach us about your views on feminism.”

“Mrs. Brown, what are your thoughts on The Wall?”

“Mrs. Brown, how do you feel about Trump?”

I’ve heard every one of these questions over the course of this year. My standard answer?

“I’m sorry, guys, but you know I don’t discuss (insert issue here) in class.”

Don’t get me wrong, my students know I’m a feminist. I’m openly opposed to discrimination, which means I support issues like gay marriage. But beyond knowing that I’m open-minded, I don’t really allow them to know my thoughts on the hard issues. My response when they ask why is that I don’t want to influence their thinking… I want them to come to their own conclusions.

I know this is the “professional” answer. And I really do want them to come to their own conclusions, based on research and a knowledge of current events. But because of a fear of overstepping my boundaries, I’ve allowed myself to miss out on teachable moments when I could have had an impactful conversation about true-to-life topics with my students.

Which is what (partly) inspired this post. Along with what I’m writing here, you will find a book review for Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough. That book is the second part of the inspiration.

I’ve kicked myself so many times for not taking the chance to have hard conversations with my students. Because, here’s the thing: if we, as educators, do not teach them the proper way to have these conversations now, how will they be able to do so later in life? I believe it is our job to provide a safe space for them to explore controversial topics, so that they may learn, not only from second hand sources, but from each other.

Which brings me to Blood Water Paint and how this all ties in to our theme of Feminist Friday…

The novel is about rape. Plain and simple. And when we put this type of literature into a student’s hands, we open up the possibility for a conversation.

We suddenly have a chance to talk about what rape culture is.

We suddenly are able to explain how the blame is often placed on the victim, not the predator.

We suddenly have the chance to discuss how rape often occurs among friends.

We suddenly are able to explain that rape happens to both boys and girls, men and women.

1 in 4 females on college campuses. 1 in 16 males.**


This is such an important conversation to have. And oftentimes, we have it too late.

Because of novels like Blood Water Paint, we are able to open up new topics of conversation. Hard topics of conversation. Necessary topics of conversation.

Which is why independent reading, book clubs, socratic seminars, are all important methods that should be implemented in the English classroom.

Now, I am a year one teacher. I have not successfully managed this yet. Hopefully, one day, I will be able to write a post for you that shows how to implement effective strategies to do exactly what I’m suggesting…

But for now, I think it is important that we become aware of the power we have as educators, English teachers, to teach our students lessons that reach so very far beyond the classroom.

**Stats pulled from this TED talk.

YA Lit Next List

There are two problems that dominate my reading life in alternate phases. One is when I have so many things I want to read that I feel I will never get through them all, and two is when I am struck by the desire to read but I have no idea what to pick up next. Of them, I definitely prefer the former, but sadly, I am often struck by the latter. So, I thought I would begin sharing my Next Lists, to help those of you who might be struggling to find that next amazing book.

YA Lit used to be my genre of choice. But, as I grew older and my tastes changed, I began to gravitate more toward literary fiction. Which means I’ve fallen out of touch with what today’s YA Lit looks like.

Now that I’m teaching high school students, I’m returning to the world of young adult fiction so that I can be better informed when making book recommendations to my students. I’m not going to lie, it feels like returning to a long lost friend…

One of the things I love about YA right now is the emphasis on diversity. As you can see by my titles, I’m all about reading stories from various cultures and perspectives. I think it’s especially important for my students to read diversely–our school is located in a very insular community, and people tend to make assumptions about cultures they know nothing about. I want my kids to formulate their own opinions after seeking and gaining their own knowledge about topics such as religion, culture, sexual orientation, etc.

So here it is, my Next List for YA Lit, Spring 2019. They are listed in no particular order:

  • Internment by Samira Ahmed
  • The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan
  • Darius the Great is not Okay by Adib Khorram
  • Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
  • Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu

It’s short and sweet, but these are titles I have repeatedly come across, and they all have fantastic recommendations. If you know of any titles I should add to my list, please leave them in the comments below.

Also, If you would like Bridget and I to review one of these books or others, let us know! We are always looking for recommendations.

Happy Reading!