April is Genocide Awareness Month

Nine YA Memoirs and Nonfiction Works About Genocide

by R. Matthew Good
Apr 08, 2021 | Filed in News & Features

Since the liberation of European concentration camps in 1945, the words “never again” are repeated whenever genocide occurs, yet these mass atrocities continue. Learning about genocide is crucial. April is recognized as Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month, with a significant number of noteworthy dates relating to the genocide and mass atrocities that have occurred in Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, Syria, Darfur, Myanmar (Rohingya), China (Uighur), and Armenia, as well as events of the Holocaust.

Sharing the stories of survivors of genocide and human rights abuses will provide you opportunities for a much broader understanding of the world and what happens when we fail to recognize each other as human.

A Cave in the Clouds: A Young Woman’s Escape from ISIS by Badeeah Hassan Ahmed with Susan Elizabeth McClelland. Annick. 2019. ISBN 9781773212357.

Gr 9 Up–Kidnapped as a teenager from the village of Kocho, in Northwestern Iraq, Ahmed details her experiences at the hands of ISIS, or Daesh. She formed a close bond with another girl, Navine, and pretended to be the mother of a boy, Eivan, to protect him. Sold off to Al-Amriki, an American who became a high-ranking ISIS commander, Ahmed struggled to survive. In a daring escape, they all fled to a refugee camp, where Ahmed learned the fate of most of her family. This account, cowritten by McClelland, provides insight into the Yazidi culture and religion and weaves in the folktales that Ahmed used to calm Eivan.

Walk Toward the Rising Sun: From Child Soldier to Peace Activist by Ger Duany with Garen Thomas. Make Me a World. 2020. ISBN 9781524719401.

Gr 8 Up–Actor and activist Duany chronicles his life in South Sudan. In the 1980s, he was forced to become a child soldier; at 14, after seeking refuge in Ethiopia, he settled in the United States. Though he was safe and even found success acting and modeling, he still struggled with the trauma of his past. His memoir is a powerful account of his pursuit of peace.

In Search of Safety: Voices of Refugees by Susan Kuklin. Candlewick. 2020. ISBN

Gr 7 Up–Through text and photos, Kuklin documents the experiences of five refugees who fled Afghanistan, Myanmar, South Sudan, Northern Iraq, and Burundi. Though the focus of the work is on the refugee experience, the underlying cause of each situation is atrocity or genocide. Maps and historical context aid in understanding the subjects’ reasons for escaping their homelands, and the notes section lists organizations that aid refugees, time lines for each country, and more.

Life and Death in Nyamata by Omar Ndizeye. Amsterdam. 2020. ISBN 9789493056480.

Gr 9 Up–Ndizeye discusses his childhood and youth; his innocence came to an abrupt halt when he and his family sought shelter at the Nyamata Catholic Church during the Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Omar witnessed the murder of his father and struggled to survive after escaping the church. Though his memoir is at times grisly, he focuses on hope as he discusses the organizations that have aided survivors.

The Cat I Never Named: A True Story Of Love, War, and Survival by Amra Sabic-El-Rayess with Laura L. Sullivan. Bloomsbury. 2020. ISBN 9781547604531.

Gr 8 Up–In this powerful work, Sabic-El-Rayess recounts the persecution she faced in the 1990s as a Bosnian Muslim in the former Yugoslavia. While the city of Bihać was besieged, she found comfort with a cat, who, remarkably, even saved her family’s life on several occasions. Though the author and her family lost friends and mentors who fled the country to avoid the war, they stayed and faced brutal circumstances in Bihać. Notes and resources offer historical context.

Untamed: Beyond Freedom by Celine Uwineza. 2019. Self-published. ISBN 9781091975088.

Gr 8 Up–In an attempt to heal from past trauma, Uwineza writes about her experiences as a 10-year-old during the Genocide Against the Tusi in Rwanda. She chronicles the murder of her family and her struggle to survive, as well as her recovery and her faith. This powerful memoir sheds light on the aftermath of atrocity.

Year of the Rabbit By Tian Veasna. Drawn and Quarterly. 2020. ISBN 9781770463769.

Gr 9 Up–In this graphic novel, Veasna tells the story of his family, who fled Phnom Penh as the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia. Born just three days after his family left the city, Veasna recounts the experiences of his parents and extended family. His narrative is supported by maps and other contextual details drawn at the beginning of each chapter, and although his extended family is large, he clearly documents their individual stories.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya & Elizabeth Weil. Crown. 2018. ISBN 9780451495327.

Gr 8 Up–At six, Wamariya and her older sister fled home to avoid the Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Over the next six years, they moved from camp to camp, eventually gaining refugee status and moving to Chicago. Wamariya vividly describes life a refugee and how she relied on her sister to make important decisions at each juncture. As an adult, she wrestles with her past and the perceptions that many have of those who have survived genocide.

We Are Displaced: My Journey and Stories from Refugee Girls Around the World by Malala Yousafzai. Little, Brown. 2019. ISBN 9780316523646.

Gr 7 Up–Yousafzai further details her own experiences as a displaced person as well as those of young refugees from Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guatemala, Colombia, and Yemen. She visited these girls in camps or in their new homes to give voice to the persecution and the violence they fled. Yousafzai concludes by suggesting ways young people can help those who are displaced.

Matthew Good is the librarian for Donegal Junior High School in Mount Joy, PA and the Educators’ Institute for Human Rights, based in Washington, DC.